Shades of REDD+
Corresponding Adjustments, Equity, and Climate Justice

The increasing commoditization of carbon markets makes us forget that behind these board room discussions, there is a real-world problem out there with the plight of real people at stake. While being an invention of the global north, carbon markets came with a great promise for us here in the South. The idea of backing voluntary claims with corresponding adjustments puts this promise at grave risk.

10 June 2021 | The fight for our future has to be fought, to a large extent, in developing countries as they move to enhance their human development indices and gross domestic product alike. The international principle of common-but-differentiated responsibilities carries the duty to support communities that battle increasing poverty and hardship on their journey towards clean energy and transport, sustainable land use, and healthy ecosystems. Carbon finance can play a big role in such a dispersed need-based compact. However, I see such an opportunity fade away in discussions around accounting technicalities of claims.

Demanding corresponding adjustments for voluntary carbon market transactions risks restricting voluntary investments within the boundaries of the developed world, (as these countries are the ones most likely to have an operational mechanism for adjustments in the near future) a concept which heavily undermines climate justice for the vulnerable. And we should all be very worried about that.

We need to reframe the discussion on corresponding adjustments and give it a human dimension

Just to be sure. I am all for integrity. However, corresponding adjustments for the voluntary carbon market are a lofty idea without much practicality. It has been a point of extensive discussions in the global north, where it apparently seems like a good idea to pile on more demands on developing countries and communities. This view may be the result of an appalling underrepresentation of countries that need voluntary finance in the plethora of task forces, consultations, and working groups mushrooming across the developed world, for a problem that largely affects the developing world. The ground realities seem very, very far removed from the conference room conversations, and just to be clear, the global south comprises roughly 150 countries, so a sweeping homogenous view is a problem. The result is as it always has been: The developed world sets the rules, and the rest of the world is forced to accept the bent logic supporting them. Let me make some points that should be considered when discussing corresponding adjustments for the voluntary carbon market.

The demand for corresponding adjustments is outright patronizing and fails to recognize the real needs of developing countries

The argument that developing countries would cut corners with their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) if voluntary action is permitted without adjustments does not only sound extremely patronizing but also ignores the fact that governments generally welcome added private sector engagement to show them the way in setting their own action plans towards enhancing their NDCs via added knowhow of varied low carbon technologies and associated mitigation cost discoveries.

Additionally, a lot of NDCs in the least developed nations are conditional on finance. If the finance is indeed provided through voluntary action, the country is then asked to deduct those mitigation outcomes from their own NDC accounting systems. This seems a bit odd to most host country policymakers. A bureaucrat in one of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in Asia asked me the other day if they should have explicitly added private sector finance to the conditionality, as it appears that only donor finance from countries or multilateral bodies can count as conditional finance, even if it is a loan.

None of the developed countries seem to have a model for how to effect corresponding adjustments. How can we expect countries several notches below in bureaucratic system efficiency ratings to sort this out in five years or even ten years?

Setting deadlines for the requirement of corresponding adjustments seems a bit like putting the cart in front of the horse. Also, transition times do not solve the problem. The pundits seem to assume that carbon ‘markets’ are based on spot credits that are sold from projects that are on the ground already. This is not the case, and fewer and fewer projects will have credits ‘on the shelf’ ready to be sold. Most projects, in particular the much in focus nature-based solutions, require up-front investments for projects that remove or abate carbon over the next decades. Investment requirements that demand corresponding adjustments after a transition period as a condition for their finance, make such investments impossible, as no actor on the ground can commit to such adjustments being made.

Corresponding adjustments cement existing power structures and frustrate emerging calls for climate justice

Provisional commitments from countries to make corresponding adjustments in the future will not solve the problem. Obtaining such commitments may be possible for international organizations and highly funded international NGOs. It is impossible for smaller, local organizations to even start such a conversation. The risk is that power structures will further be solidified by limiting local actors to be part of “benefit-sharing” plans of larger organizations, throwing communities back into a never-ending quest for indigenous, inclusive, and rights-based climate action.

Try explaining to a struggling mountain community in Asia or a marginalized group of migrants in sub–Saharan Africa in a post-covid world, that their access to much needed and deserved finance is being held up by some form of accounting and claim issue. A lot of carbon programs are centered around communities which are at loggerheads with their governments, the very administration we are asking them to take adjustment approvals from.

Endemic corruption is another problem. Carbon markets are meant to put power into the hands of the vulnerable and for the private sector to show leadership in climate action, just to see the enlightened in the global north throwing these actors back to the feeding lions. Anybody who remembers the ordeals and challenges of obtaining a simple thing such as a Letter of Approval for the Clean Development Mechanism can testify to the challenges. That was just an acknowledgement of sorts with nothing to lose for the governments, here we are potentially asking for sovereigns to relinquish emission reductions that would otherwise contribute to their NDCs . Well, Good luck with that.

Carbon finance is fast, nimble, and desperately needed

In my experience, ambition was never the problem really, finance always was and is. The voluntary carbon market has mobilized almost a billion dollars last year alone and is expected to deploy another two to three billion in the next years. This is not insignificant. And we are talking about deployments and not pledges, an important distinction from public climate finance and associated rhetoric. This means that voluntary carbon finance is an essential piece of the puzzle towards achieving many countries’ NDCs. In my experience, developing countries welcome carbon finance as an alternate form of finance without red tape. This frees up public resources for them to support prioritized issues such as health and education. The enterprising nature of voluntary project developers to explore diverse project types, methodologies, and technologies make for an interesting perspective for most host countries. Official climate finance flows to the governments and takes years to reach the communities that need it most.

For example, the Green Climate Fund supports a project In India, one of four GCF projects for a country of 1.3 billion people. It took the project three years to be approved, and today, three years after the approval, only four percent of the approved budget has been disbursed. In contrast, we have conceptualized a project north of this project area with the same coastal communities in December 2020, it achieved financial closure by March 2021, investment agreements were in place in May 2021 and it will make first disbursements by July of this year. With a requirement for approvals on corresponding adjustments, these lead times could just go to ‘indefinite’ or for the project to not happen at all.

Government pledges cannot save us

Maybe, I can set one more point straight. The premise that only sovereign commitments can solve the climate crisis is fundamentally flawed. If governments were on track to solve this crisis, we wouldn’t really need voluntary action. It is because those pledges are often hollow and without accountability, is the reason why we are still experiencing the climate crisis. While we worry about corresponding adjustments for developing countries, we seem to be without any technocratic response for the situation where developed countries such as the US decide to exit the Paris Agreement or when countries slip back in their NDC commitments. There are multiple salient issues around the integrity of the Paris Agreement but the absence of corresponding adjustments for voluntary private investments is definitely not one of them.

Do not get me wrong. I am sure the calls for corresponding adjustments are all well-meaning, but the actors in this piece making these calls seem to be oblivious to the ruckus they are unraveling with increasing indecision and confusion in the markets. Recently though it must be said, it does seem like the integrity of private sector involvement has become more important than the issue of climate action itself with an overzealous investigation on claims and methodologies at the cost of risking losing private sector involvement altogether, as even well-meaning companies start fearing PR blowbacks

I repeat myself when I say I am all for integrity, of the voluntary markets, and of the Paris agreement, but we cannot have discussions around who can or who can’t receive much-needed financial support based on their federal mechanisms. That is just not fair. Governments will do what they have to do, and we must push them, but clearly, they do not have the capacity to deliver on all fronts. It is never an “and/or” battle, it should be everything that we have at our disposal, and that includes businesses, civil organizations and communities. We should make things as easy as it can get to have finance flow down to the needy and remove every possible roadblock. Time is running out! There is a real-world out there that needs all the support we can muster.

Photo: VNV Advisory Services

Illegal agriculture is the main reason we’re still losing forests. Is a crackdown coming?

Tropical deforestation’s threat to climate security is well understood by now. It is also a major obstacle to biodiversity conservation, human rights, preventing the emergence of novel zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, and the Sustainable Development Goals. Forest Trends helped to put agriculture-driven deforestation on the map in 2014. Our new report, Illicit Harvest, Complicit Goodsexpands the knowledge base further, by benchmarking the state of illegal deforestation for commercial agriculture around the world.

Forest Trends talks a lot about the distinction between legal and illegal deforestation. It’s not an academic point: illegal deforestation requires a different set of strategies to stop. It is also not a victimless crime. “Illegality” can mean a range of bad behaviors, from forest conversion that happens without appropriate permits; clearing protected species or on protected lands; paying bribes; not paying taxes or fees; illegal use of fi

re; right on through to land grabbing and human rights abuses of local forest communities.

Our new study shows that not only is the majority of land clearing for products like beef, soy, palm oil, and cocoa illegal, but it is getting worse. These are not the results we wanted to see. But it is important data for governments and businesses committed to stopping deforestation.

Some key findings from the report:

Illegal land clearing for commercial agriculture is the largest component of tropical deforestation–and is getting worse.

At least 69% of tropical agro-conversion (the conversion of forests to pasture or cropland) was conducted in violation of national laws and regulations over the period 2013-2019. That’s at least 31.7 million hectares over the 7-year period (roughly the size of Norway), or at least 4.5 million hectares per year.

In Brazil, at least 95% of all deforestation was illegal. Indonesia’s Supreme Audit Agency found that more than 80% of palm oil operations were out of compliance with national laws and regulations.

The area of illegal agro-conversion has increased since we first looked at it seven years ago.

More forest land is being illegally cleared to make way for agricultural crops and pastures than ever before. Some numbers: the average annual loss of 4.5 Million hectares per year is an increase of 28% over the amount reported from 2000-2012 (3.5 Mha per year).

Emissions from illegal agro-conversion are globally significant.

Emissions from illegal agro-conversion account for 42% of all emissions from tropical deforestation. The total is equivalent of more than 2.7 Gt CO2 per year between 2013-2019, a total of 19 Gt for the entire seven-year period (2013-2019). On an annual basis, that’s more than India’s emissions from fossil fuels in 2018.

Commercial agriculture–legal and illegal–is the leading cause of deforestation in the tropics.

The expansion of commercial agricultural is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions from land use change in the tropics. A surge of voluntary corporate commitments to protect forests have struggled to gain traction. The New York Declaration on Forests pledged to halve deforestation by 2030; deforestation has actually worsened since the agreement was made in 2014.

These global estimates of illegal agro-conversion are conservative–the truth on the ground is undoubtedly worse than this. A lack of transparency is at the heart of the problem.

Most countries do not report on the extent to which forests are being cleared illegally – consider our numbers the conservative end. The authors report strictly on estimates of well-documented illegality; actual illegal behavior is probably even more widespread.

Transparency matters. A lack of data enables governments and companies to claim plausible deniability of any complicity in illegal forest clearing.

Too much of the world’s agricultural production and trade carries a high risk of including illicit harvests, leaving companies and their customers trafficking in complicit goods.

In 2019, exports of at least US$55 billion were linked to agro-conversion across ten commodities – mostly those grown in Latin America and Asia. This exposes agribusiness supply chains to risk of association with land grabs and human rights abuses. It makes consumers complicit  in tropical forest loss and trafficking in illegal products, whether they know it or not.

But we also found evidence that this problem is solvable.

Indonesia has successfully reduced its deforestation every year since a peak in 2016. Brazil was successful in drastically reducing deforestation up until 2012 – and in doing so contributed more to addressing climate change through a reduction in related emissions than any other single country. We see leadership on this issue from many companies, and are encouraged by the focus on deforestation communicated by the UK, the COP-26 host, as a central issue for this year’s climate talks.

The UK, US, and EU governments are all currently crafting trade regulations that would keep illegally produced goods from entering their markets.

“I think most U.S. consumers would strongly agree that it’s immoral, outdated, and preposterous that products sold on supermarket shelves can be traced back to illegally deforested land,” said US Representative Earl Blumenauer in a news release. “This report offers more evidence as to why we need to crack down on illegal deforestation from commercial agriculture.”

Updates to the US Lacey Act in 2008 banned the trade in illegal timber. Those new regulations are working to stop illegal logging around the world. We can use similar tactics for other illegally produced commodities.

“Putting an end to unnecessary illegal deforestation for palm oil, soy, beef, and other products is the next logical extension towards ending these destructive practices that are hurting the world’s forests and the climate,” said Rep. Blumenauer.

In the coming weeks, we’ll publish new analysis showing a pathway forward, including specific recommendations for commodity producer countries, importing countries, investors, and civil society. Sign up here for updates on this work.

Shades of REDD+
ART, JNR or GCF… Which is Best for Countries?

13 May 2021 | Last month, several donor governments and companies offered to pay countries for emission reductions measured and issued under the Architecture for REDD+ Transactions (ART).  Just the week prior, Verra issued the revised Jurisdictional and Nested REDD+ (JNR) standard, v4.0.  And last week the Green Climate Fund (GCF) held a dialogue to inform the next phase of REDD+ results-based payments under the GCF.  These three represent the available “open” carbon finance opportunities for forest countries (noting that the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility’s Carbon Fund only allowed a limited number of countries to apply and is now closed).

This may leave some forest countries perplexed over which avenue to choose—ART, JNR or the GCF? Is one of these better than the others?  Our view is simply that it depends on the country. A country may find that one option is a better fit for their context than another.  In this blog we do not opine on the stringency of the standards, nor whether companies should prefer purchasing credits from one over another.  Rather, we explain the differences and, in doing so, hope to help countries consider the options available to them.

Note:  A more detailed comparison of the three initiatives can be found here

Market or non-market finance?

One of the key differences between the GCF, compared to ART and JNR, is that the GCF is providing non-market payments for emission reductions rather than a carbon credit transaction.  While it is true that a country may use ART or JNR as a means to make a non-market payment, the GCF to date has been the best fit for countries that are looking for financial recognition for REDD+ performance, but not interested, or yet ready, to sell carbon credits.

REDD+ payments under the GCF are based on countries’ REDD+ submissions to the UNFCCC.  Such submissions are technically assessed by expert review teams and then undergo additional scrutiny by GCF technical experts.  Unlike ART and JNR, emission reduction claims are not ‘audited’ by an independent third party.  There is more flexibility under the GCF with respect to technical issues such as the stringency of data, or methods to set baselines, and therefore may also be a good fit for countries that are in early stages of developing forest monitoring systems.

The GCF may also be a good fit for countries that do not yet have clarity on carbon rights, or that by law cannot sell ‘national scale’ carbon.  Because the GCF is not a ‘market-based’ instrument, however, it does not engage the growing private sector finance interested in market-based credits.  Whether the GCF Board decides to fund another phase of results-based payments will likely be decided this year.


If the GCF is a good fit for countries that do not wish to sell carbon credits, or for countries that cannot yet meet a market standard, then what is the key difference between ART and JNR?  Both purport to be ‘market-based’ standards.  However, they were developed with different objectives in mind: ART was created to incentivize government policy change, while JNR’s main goal is to promote credibility when accounting for emission reductions at various scales.

There are actually more similarities between these two standards than differences.  Both have prescriptive requirements for measuring and monitoring greenhouse gases.  They both use a pooled buffer to manage reversals and require leakage discounts.  The specific provisions around these may differ – and therefore countries will want to look closely at each standard – but the broad outlines are similar.

One major difference, however, is that ART may offer the opportunity to generate jurisdictional credits for reforestation.  It may also offer a more flexible baseline for “high forest cover, low deforesration” countries.  ART’s standard, called TREES, is currently underoing public review for changes that would enable these new provisions.  By contrast, the current version of JNR only allows crediting for emissions from deforesration and forest degradation and does not have special provisions for countries with low deforestation rates—although Verra has stated that future changes to JNR may provide such flexibility.

Another major difference between ART and JNR is that JNR provides provisions for “nesting” projects into a jurisdictional program.  Where a country aims to catayze up-front, private sector finance for investments into operational activities, nesting supports this goal by carving out site-specific areas for such finance to flow.  Nesting may also be useful where land tenure and carbon rights are diffuse and respecting such rights is challenging with an “only jurisdictional crediting” program.

JNR’s provisions are more prescribed with regard to transparency in benefit-sharing mechanisms and protecting the rights of non-state actors (indigenous peoples, local communities, landowners, or anyone that may have a claim to the carbon in forests). By contrast, ART is more specific than JNR on safeguards—although if a country combined JNR with an additional safeguards-focused certification, such as the REDD+ Social & Environmental Standards, the certification would compare well to ART.

ART is set up to drive countries towards mitigation efforts at a national scale, while JNR seems comfortable with project-based approaches and medium-scale jurisdictional programmes. For TREES, subnational programmes have to be very large (in excess of 2.5 million hectares of forests) and such programmes can only receive credit up to 2030—after which time they must transition to national scale crediting.  JNR is more flexible and offers a “bottom up” option—allowing direct crediting at local scales—within a national framework for REDD+.

Conclusion:  It all depends…

In conclusion, countries have several options for accessing results-based REDD+ finance – and it depends on their circumstances which of the options is most advantageous to them.  For example:

  • Some countries – for political or legal reasons – may decide not to participate in market-based finance for forests. For example, Ecuador faces legal barriers to monetizing ecosystem services—so GCF finance is a good option.
  • Costa Rica has provided a concept note to ART. It has an operational payments-for-ecosystem services (PES) system that it can build on, and clarity on carbon rights.  Landowners “opt in” to participate, and share benefits from, the national system (or not), so the government is not selling carbon that it does not own.
  • Other countries that have existing projects or wish to engage up front investment finance into on-the-ground, local activities may be interested in pursuing JNR. JNR has multiple “nesting” scenarios that enable countries to incentivize the private sector, through crediting both the government and carbon projects in parallel.

Multiple standards may be confusing at first, but ultimately is a positive development—offering different pathways to encourage mitigation for the many different circumstances of forest countries.

Changes to Verra’s Jurisdictional and Nested REDD+ Framework to Advance Global Climate Goals

This framework leverages the strengths of both scales of implementation. Governments create enabling environments and the right incentives for forest protection. REDD+ projects tend to be more nimble and effective at delivering services to local actors, including communities, and addressing local drivers of deforestation.

Jurisdictional and project-based REDD+ efforts are also likely to tap into different pools of capital. Jurisdictional REDD+ efforts are more likely to be of interest to buyer/donor governments given the larger scale of reductions that can be achieved. And while some corporates may be interested in that scale, REDD+ projects are more likely to appeal to the private sector who will want to have a clear story to tell (e.g., “we helped protect this forest and these species”) and may prefer having a specific counterparty.

What Is Different?

To strengthen the rules for this integration of project-based REDD+ with jurisdictional efforts, several updates were made, most notably:  

  • Updates to ensure high-integrity accounting of emission reductions at the jurisdictional level that reflect the latest science and best practice;
  • Project baselines will be set on the basis of jurisdiction-wide Forest Reference Emission Levels (FRELs) and risk of deforestation and/or forest degradation; 
  • These FRELs will need to be updated more frequently, from the current 5-10 year timeframe down to a 4-6 year interval. Additionally, the FREL historical reference period was shortened from 8-12 to 4-6 years. 

Different Ways of Accounting

These updates are made with the primary goal of driving high-quality greenhouse gas emission reductions at multiple scales and ensuring that the accounting of emission reductions at the project level is aligned and harmonized with government accounting. This does not mean that the old project-based approach was invalid. All existing projects followed the requirements and the accounting methodologies that were in place when they were registered, and which were developed taking into account best practice, lessons learned, the latest scientific findings at the time, and extensive stakeholder input. Given those projects followed the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) program requirements and the respective accounting methodologies, including having the project design validated and the results verified by independent auditors, their emission reductions are real and permanent.

The new approach to setting baselines (based on Forest Reference Emission Levels, FRELs and risk of deforestation and/or forest degradation) is a different way of doing this, but does not mean that the previous approach was inaccurate. Indeed, many experts suggest that jurisdictional accounting by itself may not adequately reflect  the level of threat faced by particular patches of forest. In addition, it is important to note that, before the emergence of FRELs, projects had to establish baselines without the benefit of jurisdiction-wide data. Now that many countries have established FRELs, they can be used as the basis for accounting across the entire jurisdiction, including to help establish project baselines that are fully aligned with government-led accounting and the risk of deforestation and/or forest degradation. Together, this will allow high-integrity approaches across multiple scales that both facilitates accounting and helps ensure finance can flow to where it is most needed — from national to project levels.  

This change is analogous to some of the technological developments that we have seen in audio. As a result of progress in this area, we now have technologies like mp3 files and satellite radio. However, vinyl records still exist and produce excellent sound quality, even though they may not be as simple to store and are not as readily shared as electronic formats. But just because most of us rely on electronic formats for listening to music, this does not discount the value of vinyl. At the end of the day, both electronic formats and vinyl records produce music, and both previous and current approaches to setting REDD+ project baselines generate real and permanent emission reductions. 

REDD+ has demonstrated that finance can be effectively channeled to long-term forest conservation by helping local communities thrive without having to destroy the surrounding forest. The task at hand is now to make sure that the lessons learned over the last decade are incorporated into evolving frameworks behind REDD+, and that means integrating projects and emerging government efforts so that we can leverage as much finance as possible to protect the world’s remaining forests.

Who’s Buying Carbon Offsets?
Latest EM Insights Explores the Demand Side

05 May 2021 | Carbon markets are booming. What will the demand for voluntary offsets look like if it is estimated that the market needs to grow 15-fold by 2030 and 100-fold by 2050 in order to meet Paris Agreement ambition? The third and final installment of Ecosystem Marketplace’s 2020 State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets report, published yesterday, explores some of the most significant trends and developments from the demand side.

In 2020, the EM Global Carbon Survey received responses from its global network of EM Respondents, consisting of 152 project developers, investors, retailers, and brokers that provided carbon market transactions across 73 countries, 20 standards, 41 project types, and 21 buyers sectors. The report’s findings highlight some notable similarities and disparities between European and North American buyers, showing that in 2019:

  • European buyers are gaining market share as they are purchased more offsets than other regions, increasing 48% in 2016 to 63% in 2019.
  • Compared to Europe, a greater but declining portion of public sector and non-profit buyers are present in North America.
  • In both regions, the Finance/Insurance sector bought relatively high volumes of carbon credits.
  • Likely for reasons of supply, Europe was more likely to purchase international credits while North America tended to go domestic.
  • While buyer preferences vary region to region for specific standards and project types, projects with carbon and non-carbon benefits consistently attracted premium prices.

Download the report for free now to read more on the EM Global Carbon Hub.

6 Words to Describe the US Pledge to Reduce Emissions 50-52% by 2030

This story first appeared on the WRI blog. Cover Image by: The White House

The first 100 days of U.S. President Biden’s administration saw a flurry of new action and commitments on climate. He quickly rejoined the Paris Agreementactivated agencies across the federal government to be part of the climate change solution, and proposed a once-in-a-generation $2 trillion investment in infrastructure and jobs for the clean energy economy.

The latest milestone is a new national climate commitment under the Paris Agreement (known as a Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC), pledging to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030. This commitment is significantly higher than the previous U.S. pledge to cut emissions 26-28% by 2025.

Biden announced the new target at the outset of the Leaders Summit on Climate, organized by the United States on Earth Day, April 22, 2021. The Leaders Summit was an opportunity to revive global cooperation on climate and featured world leaders, business executives, and climate and environmental champions.

This new target comes against a backdrop of mixed progress on climate since President Obama announced the first U.S. emissions-reduction commitment in 2014. The Trump administration spent four years rolling back and weakening important climate and pollution regulations. The past five years have seen some of the most damaging floods, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires in U.S. history. And global emissions continue trending upward, rising at least 4% since 2014. However, despite President Trump’s efforts, U.S. emissions declined 2% from 2015 to 2019, in part because of an unprecedented groundswell of climate action by U.S. states, cities, businesses and others, as well as organizing by youth activists, that helped to raise ambition at a time when federal leadership was absent.

All of this culminated in Biden setting a target to cut emissions in half by the end of this decade — a goal that is not only achievable, but will create numerous economic and health benefits and millions of good-paying jobs.

Here are six words to describe this historic announcement:

1. Ambitious

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the Leaders Summit that this administration is committed to do more to address the climate crisis than any previous administration. The new target of 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030 increases the average annual pace of reductions by 30% from the 2025 target set by President Obama, and doubles the pace from the earlier target set under the Copenhagen Accord of a 17% reduction by 2020. This pace exceeds the average annual rate needed to reach net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050, something Biden called for in an executive order in January.

Achieving the new commitment will require bold steps across all sectors of the economy — each necessary to both near-term and mid-century goals. President Biden has targeted 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035. He plans to set vehicle emissions standards and find ways to reduce emissions from international shipping and aviation. He proposes large building retrofits and new energy codes to ensure all buildings are highly efficient and electrified. He promises to support electrification, efficiency, carbon capture and hydrogen use in industry. And he commits to invest in forest restoration and climate-smart agriculture, phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and reduce methane emissions from oil and gas, agriculture and waste. It is truly a “whole-of-economy” approach.

2. Achievable

Analysis by WRIalong with many others, shows that there are many pathways to cut emissions by 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, and that doing so will create millions of good jobs, make our economy more competitive, and reduce death and disease from air pollution.

Research shows that the country can take advantage of trends already underway to phase out uneconomical coal-fired power plants, triple the rate at which we are building wind and solar farms, and increase the electric vehicles (EV) market from 2% of sales to more than 50%, all by the end of this decade. With the falling costs of EV technology and the opportunity for the United States to lead on EV battery manufacturing, the economic benefits of clean cars are quickly outpacing their upfront costs.

Infrastructure, like that proposed in Biden’s American Jobs Plan, is key to support the growing clean energy economy. That means modernizing the grid to allow for more cheap wind and solar. It also means deploying ubiquitous EV charging stations, to allow individuals, businesses and cities to electrify their vehicles.

The Biden administration also has several regulatory tools at its disposal to tackle emissions. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan said the agency is advancing regulations to limit carbon emissions from power plants and vehicles, the two largest sources of U.S. emissions. The administration also plans to advance more aggressive methane standards on oil and gas operations, which contribute a significant amount of fugitive emissions.

This would build upon major energy legislation Congress passed in December 2020 to phase down HFCs, super-pollutants used in refrigeration and air conditioning; expand investments in wind, solar, the electricity grid, energy storage and weatherization of low-income housing; and increase energy efficiency upgrades of schools and federal buildings.

Biden’s whole-of-government approach will be complemented by a whole-of-America approach through U.S. state, local and private sector action and partnerships. The 2019 Accelerating America’s Pledge analysis found that ambitious action from states and local actors could reduce U.S. emissions 37% below 2005 by 2030. An “All-in” strategy that pairs local climate action with aggressive federal engagement could achieve the 50% reduction goal by 2030.

3. Affordable

Not only is the low-carbon, clean energy transition affordable, it is an immense opportunity for the U.S. economy. A recent WRI report found that 41 U.S. states are already growing their economies while reducing their emissions. A major motivation is the creation of good jobs.

Investing in wind and solar creates twice as many jobs as the same investment in fossil fuel production, and restoring degraded lands can be a major source of employment. Plus, the mean hourly wages for clean energy jobs are 8-19% higher than the national averageWidespread electrification of the economy could support up to 25 million good-paying jobs over the next 15 years and 5 million sustained jobs by mid-century — all while saving households an average of $2,000 annually in energy costs and better health outcomes.

Clean energy and infrastructure investments are also key economic recovery tools post-pandemic. WRI’s COVID-19 Recovery Expert Note series demonstrate how targeted investments can generate a large number of jobs in electric busespublic transitenergy-efficient buildingsgrid infrastructure, and conservation and restoration of natural and working lands. A recent analysis from Moody’s found that the American Jobs Plan would create more than 2 million additional jobs by the mid-2020s than would otherwise exist. These jobs will reach all types of communities. WRI analysis finds that jobs in clean energy outnumber fossil fuel jobs in four out of five rural U.S. counties. Climate action is also good for business, as understood by the more than 400 major U.S. companies that called on President Biden to cut emissions by at least half by 2030.

Lastly, it is also essential that the policies and investments are designed to address underlying racial and social justice issues and help build wealth within disadvantaged and marginalized communities. Biden’s American Jobs Plan commits to ensuring that at least 40% of the benefits from its clean energy investments will accrue to these communities.

4. Necessary

The strongest rationale for action is the consequence of inaction.

2020 set a new record of 22 climate and weather disasters in the United States that each cost over $1 billion, for a total economic toll of more than $95 billion. Without new policies, the annual economic damages from climate change could reach 1-3% of U.S. GDP by the end of the century; up to 10% in the worst-case scenario. Extreme heat, sea level rise and crop yield declines will hit the South and parts of the Midwest the hardest.

This is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the world faces dire impacts unless all nations take unprecedented action to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels by cutting emissions in half by 2030 and reach net-zero around mid-century. Investments in resilience, in addition to mitigation, are necessary to protect communities from further harm.

Human health is also compromised by our current energy system. Poor air quality is the leading environmental risk to people, particularly those living in urban areas, and responsible for more than 7 million premature deaths annually worldwide. Most of this is driven by power plants, vehicles, and industry burning fossil fuels and generating air pollution like ozone, smog, particulate matter and greenhouse gases. Additionally, human health impacts are not felt equally. It is a burden borne most by low-income communities and communities of color. One study found that white populations in the United States experienced 17% less air pollution than was caused by producing the goods and services they consumed, while Black and Hispanic communities experienced 56% and 63% more pollution, respectively. It is a dire matter of equity and justice to address the dual crises of climate and environmental pollution.

5. Foundational

This new target is one component of a comprehensive national climate policy consistent with the Paris Agreement. To raise the feasibility and credibility of the U.S. NDC, it needs a more detailed action plan, along with further commitments to the international community.

President Biden announced that his National Climate Task Force is developing a national climate strategy to be issued later this year. Obama released his Climate Action Plan just before the 2014 target. To achieve this new target, the strategy must involve steps to rapidly deploy proven clean energy technology we have today, lower the cost for emerging technology, and phase in standards to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution.

While the Biden administration has several tools at its disposal, it is also imperative that Congress opens more avenues to achieve a 50% reduction. In addition to historic investments in domestic infrastructure and manufacturing, Congress could codify a national Clean Energy Standard — analogous to the renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that many states already have — to ensure all electricity is generated without emissions by 2035.  Another effective tool is to price or tax carbon pollution, which would help lower emissions quickly in the power sector and, if applied economy-wide, help decarbonize the most challenging sectors, such as industry. There are positive signs from Congress with the recent introduction of the CLEAN Future Act and the Clean Energy for America Act.

The United States is the world’s second-largest emitter — responsible for 13% of global emissions — and largest historical cumulative emitter. To foster international climate diplomacy, it must use its position of leadership to encourage greater ambition by peer nations. The new NDC is helping persuade other countries to step up their emissions-reduction goals and match or exceed new commitments from China, Japan, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Canada, India, South Africa and other major emitters.

To fully re-establish itself as a global leader, the United States also needs to complement its emissions-reduction target with a significant increase in financial support for developing countries — particularly to pursue clean energy, reduce deforestation, and build resilience to climate impacts. Biden’s recent FY22 budget request and the International Climate Finance Plan he launched at the Leaders Summit on Climate starts to ramp up finance, but the U.S. will need to do more to meet the urgent support needs of vulnerable countries and position the country as a leader among developed country donors. For example, the $1.2 billion Biden requested for the Green Climate Fund does not even deliver on the $2 billion pledge made by the Obama-Biden administration, let alone match the level of effort other developed countries have shown by doubling their commitments.

Coupled with the newly announced ambitious emissions-reduction commitment, more climate finance can further global ambition at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021.

6. Inspirational

After a four-year absence of federal leadership on climate, both domestically and internationally, Biden’s Earth Day announcement sets a renewed tone for global cooperation and concerted action to address this shared crisis. Yet achieving this national target and putting the world on track to a clean, safe and prosperous future requires more than just words. It demands sustained effort every day from now through COP26, over the next four years, and every year through 2050. The Biden-Harris administration is poised to do that, understanding that the world cannot achieve its aspirations without the United States, and the United States cannot achieve its goals without the rest of the world.

Claims + Credibility: Embracing Diversification to Scale Carbon Markets

26 April 2021 | The next decade matters hugely in our collective battle to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Existing nationally determined contributions (NDCs) by governments are collectively far from the level of abatement needed to avert dangerous warming. A 1.5C-consistent pathway requires a 45% cut in global emissions by 2030 from 2010 levels; a 2C pathway requires a 25% cut. However, total greenhouse gas emissions in new or updated NDCs published last year offered a mere 0.5% reduction.

Greater ambition is needed from governments to fill this gap, coupled with clear plans to implement NDCs. Last week’s announcements of the NDC of the US and other countries marks a big step in the right direction. As a next step, announcements need to be translated into action. A robust voluntary carbon market plays an important role in this context: It can mobilize significant amounts of finance, harness private capacity, and empower communities to benefit from mitigation actions.

Considering the important role that the voluntary carbon market can play in support of the Paris climate goals, it is in nobody’s interest for the market to be held back by disagreement over core questions, in particular related to the nature and use of offsets and the role of corresponding adjustments.

We, the authors, have been on different sides of this debate. This is not because we disagree on the value or need for a credible and transparent voluntary market. It is instead, largely, a different view on the best way forward for the voluntary carbon market in light of two objectives: First, to ensure the credibility of claims made by buyers. When a company claims to have ‘offset’ its emissions, that statement should be grounded in truth. Second, to use the voluntary carbon market to maximize investment in mitigation action. In this way, it can be an important tool to make good on the commitment to support developing countries’ climate action.

Both objectives are clearly valid. In the light of insufficient levels of public climate finance, carbon markets are essential tools to drive emission reductions and other environmental and social development benefits, in particular in developing countries. Carbon finance can also play an important role in harnessing private-sector ingenuity and implementation power to devise climate solutions on the ground. At the same time, the use of carbon credits needs to be transparent and corporate claims made against these credits must be true.

On this issue, as with others, companies rightly want clear guidance to inform their investments and consequent claims. They also want confidence that these won’t expose them to criticism or become effectively stranded further down the line. In the interest of providing this clarity, we have identified three important principles on which we agree:

First, avoiding all forms of double counting is critical to the integrity of carbon markets. This has always been the case and is indeed enshrined in the Paris Agreement. The logic of the Paris Agreement, i.e., building trust through transparency and encouraging a ratcheting up of ambition and action, depends on robust accounting for emission reductions and removals. Double counting risks compromising the environmental integrity of the climate regime by distorting actual greenhouse emissions achieved by countries. If left unchecked, double counting of emissions reductions may stifle efforts among countries to cooperate in the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

Second, companies can credibly use voluntary carbon markets within the context of ambitious climate plans without claiming to offset their emissions. The predominant narrative to date has focused on how the two objectives of credible claims and maximized mitigation investment should be reflected in a future approach to ‘offsetting’. What has too often been overlooked is the fact that both can be met without compromise through a different approach to the market: one that emphasizes the financing of climate action rather than the offsetting of emissions.

This is an approach that is garnering increasing interest, most recently through a study by New Zealand-based Motu Research. Companies could still use existing market infrastructure and take credit for supporting emission reductions beyond their own operations and supply chains. But rather than offsetting company emissions, their transactions would contribute to host country NDCs, and indeed sustainable development goals, for which they could make a “finance” or “mitigation” claim. The integrity of the unit would still be assured through standard requirements; but with no offset claim, a corresponding adjustment would not be required.

By taking up such finance- or mitigation-based claims, the voluntary market could access more mitigation opportunities than if restricted to offsetting. It could actively contribute to the Paris Agreement’s goals by supporting the achievement of NDCs, helping to raise their ambition, as well as acting beyond them.

This approach could also enable investment in activities that are not suited to offsetting claims, and explore new approaches to attributes such as permanence, where the complexity of current approaches is primarily in place to protect the offset claim. This shift could also open up new modes of voluntary corporate action such as those described in WWF’s Blueprint for Corporate Action on Climate and Nature.

In other words, finance-based claims could create a pioneering new route for private actors to make a transformative and high-impact contribution to the Paris goals while making claims that can be trusted.

Third, offset claims should be robust, and companies should avoid ‘double claiming’, i.e., more than one entity using an emission reduction or removal towards a target. For example, if a government is accounting for emissions reductions under its NDC, a company should not use the same emission reductions certified, e.g., under the Gold Standard, as an offset. While such double claiming would not affect greenhouse gas accounting under the Paris Agreement, when both a government and a company take credit for the same emission reduction, doubt is cast on any compensation -or offset- claim by the company. Corresponding adjustments give companies the assurance that there is no competing claim hanging over the emission reduction it has enabled or purchased.

The potential for perverse impacts through double claiming may be higher in some country contexts than others. NDCs under the Paris Agreement are not uniform: some are economy-wide, some sector-specific; some are conditional, some unconditional; and some are enshrined in law while others may be largely aspirational. Very few countries have the technical capacities yet to put in place the required accounting systems for corresponding adjustments, and those countries that need carbon investments most may have the least capacity.

This points to a need for pragmatism in how new rules are introduced. But it does not change the fact that if an emission reduction is double claimed, its credibility as an offset is in question. Companies that are serious about their pledges should care about this: they’re making a promise to their investors and customers when they claim to have offset their emissions and should want this promise to be kept.

In sum, we need solutions that can enable the voluntary market to continue to deliver impact on the ground over the next decade and beyond, moving beyond the Kyoto era and supporting the Paris goals. Offsetting has taken the market a long way and will continue to play an important role. If market actors are willing to embrace new claims – those that emphasize the financing of an emission reduction for climate mitigation – we could go a lot further and, in so doing, put the corresponding adjustment debate behind us.

Photo by Rodolfo Clix from Pexels

Shades of REDD+
Creating a Bigger Tent for REDD+ Success

Natural resource management is, by nature, a collective action problem that requires incentives and cooperation of all levels of government, private and public actors. National governments alone are not better equipped to cope with deforestation compared to broad coalitions of stakeholders.

22 April 2021 | In 2009, Elinor Ostrom became the first woman and political scientist to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. She was awarded the prize “for her analysis of the economic governance, especially the commons.” Ostrom has based her work on empirical observation, which brings a timeless quality to her work — something that grand theories often lack. Her publications continue to inspire me and hold lessons worth sharing with others that look for ways to successfully reduce deforestation and address climate change.

Ostrom offers more optimism about human nature than most of her colleagues. Her starting point is not to assume that people are rational—always calculating to optimize their benefits—but to observe how communities manage common resources – grazing lands, fish stocks, forests. She studied irrigation systems in Nepal, pastoralists in Mongolia, and forest management systems in Bolivia and Bangladesh, carefully analyzing human-environment interactions and identifying conditions in which communities successfully and sustainably manage resources, including cases where central government controls are weak or absent.

Guidance on how to manage resources sustainably is needed today more than ever. Tropical deforestation increased 12 percent between 2019 and 2020, despite a decade and a half of intense debate on how to create incentives to reduce deforestation and degradation (REDD+) and numerous initiatives to protect tropical forests. Maybe it is time to revisit some of Ostrom’s findings and see what they offer for REDD+ implementation.

Tropical deforestation as a collective action problem

Tropical deforestation, like climate change, is a problem that is caused by a multitude of agents and countless local governance failures, and misplaced incentives. It is driven by a global hunger for commodities, as well as a lack of institutions and state presence in many tropical forest regions which compounds the challenge of poverty and an absence of development alternatives.

The mix of global and local drivers of deforestation makes deforestation a classic collective action problem. No country or group of actors can address deforestation alone. Local benefits of forest conservation — such as providing food, fodder, and other livelihoods needs for indigenous peoples and forest-dependent rural communities — are less attractive to governments than the immediate returns that may come from deforesting such lands. And the global benefit, such as protecting terrestrial carbon stores and ecosystems, shows no short-term, or local returns, at all.

Are we expecting too much of national governments?

It is this absence of local and national returns that REDD+ sought to address. REDD+ was conceived as a global compact under which richer nations would support tropical forests through results-based or market-linked payments for reducing deforestation. While pledged funds from developed to developing countries continue to fall short of what is needed, several countries and companies just announced a new public-private finance initiative, the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance (LEAF) Coalition that aims to mobilize at least US$1 billion to protect tropical forests through jurisdictional REDD+. With more funds available, national governments reacting to the incentive of future market payments may increase efforts to halt deforestation.

However, while governments have the regulatory powers to adopt policy, they alone may not be able to make the difference and significantly reduce deforestation in the required time frames. REDD+, if considered a purely national incentive mechanism, overburdens national governments with the responsibility to solve the problem of deforestation in their territories. National policies are, no doubt, essential to improve forest governance and establish the regulatory context for conservation. However, incentives to deforest do not magically disappear once a policy to protect forests has been adopted by a government. Governmental policies rely to a great extent on the ability and willingness of affected people and communities to cooperate, implement and comply with a policy. This is particularly true in countries that have limited national and local authority. If people see a benefit in complying with a policy, the costs of enforcement are much lower than in cases where they seek to evade the policy. It is therefore essential that not only governments deal with an externality – such as climate change or deforestation – but that local communities, farmers, and private enterprises are enlisted and feel empowered to contribute to addressing the problem.

The assumption that governments are the sole agents to solve large collective action problems tends to remove authority from local institutions and people to tackle local problems. At the same time, it overwhelms national governments that are distant from the problem they are seeking to solve. Capitals are often hundreds of miles from the forest frontier, and government officials have limited control over places where a mix of lawlessness, weak governance, and hunger for land eats into tropical forests. Uniform policies that are insufficiently adapted to diverse local circumstances often fail to impress local actors. As Ostrom emphasizes, one important lesson from empirical research is that recommending a single governance unit – such as a national government – to solve a collective action problem needs to be seriously rethought.

Any measure has to build local ownership and involve local actors

This holds important lessons for REDD+: successful efforts empower local actors and build on existing social capital and leadership. Involving local institutions – such as park services or local environmental bureaus – from the start, including in the design of projects, programs and policies are essential. Trust means to work with known actors that have a history of honoring agreements. This also means that local groups have to be included in the incentive framework, including the monitoring of success.

There are various ways to do so. A government agency may engage local actors through, for example, a payment-for-ecosystem services (PES) program. An example of a successful PES program is Ecuador’s Socio Bosque system, which offers payments to owners of land with native forests to guarantee its protection over the medium to long-term; to date, conservation agreements have been signed that cover 630,000 hectares. Banks and investors may offer green credit lines to farmers that commit to protecting forests. For example, the boutique investment firm Sustainable Investment Management Ltd offers credits to farmers in the Brazilian Cerrado that commit to environmental, zero-deforestation, and labor standards. Well-designed REDD+ projects can also play a role in halting deforestation through sponsoring community development programs, such as introducing agroforestry systems, increasing employment linked to sustainable forest management, and putting in place capacity building and training programs. The greater the understanding of conditions on the ground, the greater the likelihood that efforts to reduce deforestation will succeed. This includes respecting local land and forest rights, strengthening local institutions, such as park services, and cooperating with community organizations and trusted non-governmental organizations with a local presence.

Enlisting all levels of governance to support conservation

As important as local solutions are, they will not be sufficient. Local institutions may be best able to diagnose the problem and enlist those actors that are essential to conserving forests. Deforestation is directly or indirectly driven by population pressures, changing consumer preferences, and international commodity markets and the globalization of commodity trade means that distant markets put pressure on tropical ecosystems, in particular where markets are integrated. This means REDD+ can only be successful if all levels of policy – international, national, regional, and local – and all types of actors – government, private, community, and individuals – contribute to the solution.

Recognizing these problems, Ostrom, later in her career, started to apply her understanding of local management of resources to global collective action problems, such as climate change. She saw global challenges as the cumulative result of actions taken by individuals, families, small groups, private firms, and local, regional, and national governments. Consequently, she posited that these problems can only be addressed through multilayered solutions and involve all levels of governance: international frameworks, national governments, local public and private institutions.

Governments are on the hook to implement government policies, strengthen forest governance and align financial flows with the Paris Agreement. International partners have to support tropical forest countries through results-based payments -such as LEAF- but also with upfront finance to enable the adoption of policies and putting in place local conservation incentives. Demand-side actors have to put in place safeguards to reduce the imported deforestation, send price signals that support sustainability, and support local agricultural extension. Investors should support deforestation-free agriculture and forest, and invest in PES and REDD+ projects and programs. Local actors should be empowered to define and implement conservation measures.

Multi-layered (or polycentric) approaches require experimentation at multiple levels and learning through a multitude of initiatives. They have the added advantage that failure at one level or by one set of actors does not lead to the collapse of the system. In the case of deforestation, the lack of performance by one actor – be it a government or a company, a local institution or an international donor – or initiative should be absorbed by the multitude of other actors and initiatives. Testing multiple approaches also allows comparing success, which leads to learning and a refined set of actions.

In sum, Ostrom’s writing remains highly policy-relevant. She reminds us to ensure that the right actors are involved in defining solutions to collective-action problems. This means that national governments, while never to be left off the hook, are not alone equipped to cope with collective action problems that have large-scale outcomes. Devising successful approaches to complex environmental problems is a grand challenge and reliance on one scale to solve such problems is naïve. Stopping deforestation is a challenge that requires a “big tent”, not a government-only solution.

Photo: By © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0,

Forestry Leads the Charge to Close a Gap in Carbon Offsets Retirements and Issuances

16 April 2021 | Are we at the turning point where demand for carbon offsets will outpace supply? A new Ecosystem Marketplace Insights Brief reviews carbon offsets supply and demand signals.

The report, Closing the Carbon Offsets Issuances & Retirements Gap, State of the Carbon Offsets Standards’ Issuances & Retirements, 2021 Quarter 1 features aggregated data derived from standards’ registries, including Verra’s Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), Gold Standard, American Carbon Registry, and Climate Action Reserve, Plan Vivo, and the California Air Resources Board to bring you the latest updates and historical roundup of independent and compliance offsets standards.

As more and more companies make new net zero commitments, we are watching also how companies that had already made such ambitious goals over the past couple of years are designing their game plans for achieving them. If carbon offsets are a part of those strategies, what types of projects, which standards, project locations, among other additional attributes, will these corporate buyers prefer? More to be seen as organizations worldwide respond to the 2021 EM Global Carbon Survey, but for now we can begin to see that so far in the first quarter alone that 2021 has already proven to be a landmark year in carbon markets.

Our findings show compelling shifts, such as:

  • Retirements surpassed issuances in January 2021 for the first time since 2017. The increase was primarily driven by forestry project retirements.
  • VCS retirements have more than doubled, Plan Vivo nearly doubled, and Gold Standard increased by 40% compared to Q1 2020.
  • Over two-thirds of the world’s issuances in Q1 2021 were located in the United States, India, Turkey, Cambodia, and China.

Download the report for free now to read more on the EM Global Carbon Hub.

Shades of REDD+
The Risk of Diverting Carbon Finance from Nature to Technological Carbon Removals

9 April 2021  |  Meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement requires the deployment of carbon removal technologies at scale. The generation of ‘negative emissions’ can rely on natural processes, such as forestation or soil carbon sequestration, or human-engineered technologies, such as carbon capture and storage from combusting of fast-growing bioenergy plantation (BECCS), enhanced weathering, mineral carbonation, or the direct capture of ambient carbon dioxide (DACC). While there are differences in their mitigation potentials, risks and maturity, these are all viable options to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in biomass, soils, oceans, or geological formations in the long term.

Additional carbon removal depends on support and subsidies, and carbon finance has been proposed as a mechanism to drive investments in negative emissions. Increasingly, engineered carbon removal technologies are pitched against nature-based solutions and forests, and some see technology as the preferred solution. Corporates with science-based targets may be expected to neutralize residual greenhouse gas emissions with carbon removals that are permanent at a timescale of several hundred years and more, and think tanks such as the New Climate Institute support carbon finance for geoengineered negative emission technologies while dismissing nature-based solutions as suitable for carbon markets.

Any effort to reduce carbon concentrations in the air is welcome. However, a tech-driven plan that establishes a clear preference for carbon finance to go towards engineered solutions at the expense of nature-based carbon removals is misguided and potentially dangerous.

Technologically Stored CO2: Superior Carbon Credits?

Carbon markets are increasingly proposed as a mechanism to subsidize technological carbon removal solutions. Bill Gates – a fierce believer in DACC – compensates his personal emissions at $600/ton of carbon dioxide captured by an Icelandic DACC start-up (as a bulk investor he gets a discount to the $1,200 offered to subscribers on the startup’s website). But the support for engineered solutions extends beyond tech entrepreneurs.

Experts and NGOs that are skeptical of forest carbon markets are discovering that they are more apt to support carbon offsets from engineered carbon removal solutions. They favor technology over nature because they believe technological solutions have methodological certainty and are permanent, additional, and with limited leakage risks. For many economists and engineers, technological solutions seem more manageable compared to natural solutions and, due to their high costs and single purpose of pursuing carbon removals, are unquestionably additional.

Technological solutions also are tempting as they do not require any engagement with complicated ecosystems or support from local communities. However, technological carbon removals also come with their own set of problems. BECCS, if deployed at scale, potentially requires enormous amounts of land and yield limited to no social or environmental benefits beyond storing carbon. DACC still requires large amounts of electricity, causes air pollution, and the enormous amounts of materials and energy needed may make it difficult to meet expectations of sucking gigatons of carbon dioxide out of the air. And capturing carbon – if used to enhance oil recovery or converted into carbon-based fuels, may only delay the decarbonization of our economies and a transition to a net-zero future.

Unlike nature-based approaches, technological solutions remain unproven at scale. But more importantly, engineered solutions contribute little towards a transition to sustainable societies. In fact, the promise of a future technological fix risks locking in current unsustainable economic systems.

The Permanence of Nature and Technology

While individual trees may be lost, the world has maintained forests for millions of years. If biological carbon storage is correctly incentivized, the world can – and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change must – maintain and expand the biological storage potential from nature permanently in order to avoid further local and global climate havoc.

But there is no doubt: Natural systems are vulnerable, and the nexus of human-natural interaction is complex. Carbon stored in forests, coastal ecosystems, or agroecological systems, is vulnerable to reversals in that it can be released due to human-driven deforestation and/or natural disturbances (i.e., fire, floods, pests, diseases, landslides). And even climate change will further heighten the risk of carbon removals. For example, where regions become hotter and drier, forests may become more vulnerable to disturbance and change. This means that offsetting fossil fuels with carbon stored in ecosystems can be, indeed, risky.

However, excluding biological carbon from carbon markets fails to recognize the well-tested methods that credibly address permanence and leakage risks with sufficient certainty. Carbon market standards have formulated and refined permanence rules that assess risks and require mandatory participation in insurance mechanisms—most commonly in the form of buffer accounts. Such mechanisms transfer the permanence risk from one project to a large pool of projects. Projects contribute a share of their carbon credits to a buffer pool and, should reversals occur, an equivalent number of credits are canceled to secure the permanence of issued carbon credits. Buffer accounts do not protect the forests, but they safeguard the environmental credibility of carbon credits. For example, the massive forest fires in Brazil in 2019 and their impact on carbon projects only required the cancelation of a small percentage of reserve credits held in the buffer account that Verra administers for forest carbon projects.

Technology has the lure of being a controlled solution and sealing captured carbon underground may well result in long-term removals of carbon from the atmosphere. However, it is unclear how stored carbon can be monitored and, unless fully mineralized, permanent storage in geological formations is also not guaranteed and the perverse impacts caused by natural disasters are unclear. But more importantly, technological solutions should not replace, but rather they should complement, urgently needed investments in natural solutions.

Nature: Undervalued?

The restoration of natural ecosystems and natural forest restoration also remains undoubtedly additional in carbon market terms. Restoring forests depends on patient capital that accepts long-term returns which put such investment at odds with short-term investment expectations. Technology solutions, in contrast, need near-term R&D investment, but the hope is that once the technology is mature, it can be replicated and rolled out quickly and cost-effectively.

Investments in natural forest restoration are commercially unattractive. They are risky and returns are low. In developing countries where they are most urgently needed, they are also challenged by insecure land tenure and higher reversal risks. As a result, even though the carbon market for nature-based solutions is growing rapidly, the restoration of natural forests does not sufficiently benefit from the growing interest. Even though the opportunity is enormous: Enhancing carbon removals in soils, restoration of peatlands and coastal wetland can -starting today- annually remove over 6 billion tons of CO2 per year across 79 tropical countries and territories between 2030 and 2050 at a cost of less than US$100 per tCO2e – significantly less than the price tag of $600 – $1,200 for DACC.

Unlike technological solutions, the restoration of ecosystems and agroforestry can contribute to halting the loss of biodiversity, increase soil fertility and improve water quality. The world’s forests also produce the oxygen we all breathe and help regulate local and global weather patterns. Halting deforestation and restoring forests in recently deforested areas is also the best chance we have to avert a tipping point for the Amazon system. If current deforestation rates continue the Amazon system will flip before long to savannah ecosystems in eastern, southern, and central Amazonia. It is impossible to fully grasp the consequences of a land-use change at such a scale.

Nature vs Technology, or Nature & Technology?

Our lives depend on biologically stored carbon. At some point, our lives may also depend on storing carbon in geological formations to avert catastrophic climate change, but it is hard to compare the benefits of technology over nature. Technological solutions do not deliver the same co-benefits – and clearly cannot substitute for the loss of forests and ecosystems even though some argue technological solutions should replace biological ones for offsets. Setting one mitigation solution against another is dangerous, as all options to mitigate climate change need to be on the table. But holding out for technology to produce a superior solution is also dangerous – particularly if it discourages investments into nature-based solutions in general, and the restoration of natural forests in particular.

Carbon markets are not a universal solution to finance forests, however, they are a start and often the only opportunity to channel private finance into ecosystem restoration. While most of the finance for technological solutions will flow to companies in rich countries, investments in nature-based solutions can benefit poorer countries and communities. Indigenous and rural communities are the stewards of many globally critical ecosystems, and for them, investment in nature is the only option to protect and restore their forests.

At a moment of awakening for nature-based solutions, it seems dangerous to label biological removals as second-class carbon credits. Nature has a history of being left out of carbon markets and is only now starting to ramp up and achieve entry into the club of ‘investable’ carbon solutions. Nature cannot be shown out the door again and left to find ways to attract investment – we are out of time, and there may not be a “next time”.

Photo by Yogendra Singh from Pexels

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Opinion: Time for action that protects biodiversity, the climate and indigenous rights

The Xingu Seed Collection Network generates essential income for family farmers and indigenous communities. Photo credit: Ayrton Vignola.

This story first appeared on the Conservation Optimism blog. Photo: The Xingu Seed Collection Network is a strong community that communicates regularly through WhatsApp, sharing knowledge and advice. Photo credit: Tui Anandi (ISA).

18 February 2021 | From the beekeepers of Cameroon to the seed gatherers of Brazil, indigenous rainforest communities are invaluable to conservation. Their success highlights a crucial truth – that projects bringing a wide range of benefits are a powerful tool for protecting our planet.

Indigenous peoples are the stewards of our precious rainforests and will be key players in fighting against the climate crisis. Their skills and knowledge ultimately benefit us all: land managed by indigenous peoples has been found to harbour more biodiversity than protected areas such as parks and wildlife reserves. But communities are threatened daily by activities such as mining and logging, often denied land rights and access to essential services such as healthcare.

When the world stands with indigenous people, astonishing change is possible. In the Peruvian Amazon, legal recognition of indigenous and community forest rights has cut deforestation by up to 81%. The lesson is clear – champions of biodiversity, and those seeking to tackle climate change, must work closely with these communities. This means supporting their battle for rights and social justice and helping them to boost resilience and food security through sustainable economic opportunities.

Inspiring lessons from Brazil and Cameroon

In the Amazon, seed collection is key to reforesting degraded land. Rede de Sementes do Xingu co-ordinates more than 500 seed collectors, administrators and buyers in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. This network offers local people a vital income and has contributed to the reforestation of more than 6,600 hectares of degraded land in the Xingu and Araguaia Basin.

The network has been a lifeline during the coronavirus pandemic, providing health advice as well as distributing essential healthcare supplies such as hand gel and facemasks. Sadly, some seed collectors and community leaders have been killed by the virus – a new threat to people already facing enormous challenges. But even in such a difficult year, network members have managed to collect 19 tonnes of seeds from 112 different native species, generating an income exceeding 80,000 US$.

Meanwhile, slash and burn agriculture also threatens large parts of Cameroon’s rainforests. Local NGO Cameroon Gender and Environment Watch helps people in the Kilum-Ijim region become beekeepers instead – a more sustainable way of earning a living. They also encourage participants to be vigilant against forest fires that could threaten their hives. The NGO provides training, organisation and equipment to support farmers in this transition, and helps them sell their products (honey, soap and candles) at a fair price. So far, it has planted 80,000 native bee-friendly trees and trained 1,070 people. One-third of trainees are women, who have not traditionally taken up roles in beekeeping.

Organisations focused on biodiversity, climate change or indigenous rights should back initiatives such as these, recognising that such inclusive projects can bring success in all three areas. Conversely, work that does not may be fundamentally flawed.

We need system change – not crumbs of comfort

Natural climate solutions are an increasingly popular area for businesses to support with corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity, including the purchase of carbon credits or participation in the voluntary carbon market (which also draws in governments and NGOs). But even well-meaning businesses may not be delivering their intended aims, if the work supported does not take a holistic view of interlinked challenges.

Initiatives may tout an impressive carbon-saving figure, for example, but what is the long-term effect on indigenous livelihoods and local biodiversity? Many schemes don’t involve benefit-sharing with local communities. We can’t ignore the fact that corporate activity is often a driver of the very fundamental threats faced by indigenous communities every day. Those of us in the climate and conservation sectors should pressure corporate partners to deliver systemic change, not isolated benefits.

Holistic thinking is at the heart of the 2021 Ashden Award for Natural Climate Solutions. This award is seeking outstanding initiatives strengthening the resilience of indigenous and rainforest communities – recognising their crucial role in taking on the climate crisis.

The winner will receive a £20,000 grant, while all finalists are given marketing and business support, and access to Ashden’s network of funders, investors and expert partners. Ashden will also fund a powerful promotional film about the winner’s work. Entry is free and applications close on 3 March 2021!

What’s in a carbon credit?
New tools help quantify the sustainable development benefits of carbon offset projects

Photo: InfiniteEARTH

In celebration of International Women’s Day, March 08, 2021, Senior Associate Kim Myers calls attention to the invaluable role of women in our societies, and how female empowerment can be quantified as additional sustainable development benefits to carbon offset projects.

8 March 2021 | The people of Lango, Uganda pay a high price for their water, a price borne by the wives and daughters, not the fathers and sons. That’s because it’s women who must trek daily to rivers, streams, and forests, filling buckets of water and gathering wood to boil away the impurities. The women of Lango spend up to 2 hours a day providing water for their families – hours they could just as well spend earning income or studying in school.

Fortunately, there’s a solution: clean borehole technologies can deliver clean water from below ground, freeing up time for women to work, study, or relax. But the material and skills needed to build those boreholes don’t come cheap.

In 2019, Gold Standard hit upon a novel solution – if we built boreholes across the region, they reasoned, the women wouldn’t need to boil water, which means they wouldn’t need to chop trees, which means less carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. Could we, they asked, use carbon finance to pay for the boreholes?

The answer, it turns out, is “Yes”, and the result is the Lango Safe Water Project, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating the need to boil water and also frees up an average of two hours daily for local women.

Female empowerment is one of the many “co-benefits” associated with carbon projects. Unlike the emissions that these projects reduce or the carbon they remove, however, co-benefits were historically anecdotal, told in stories, rather than in numbers, like two hours saved.

Now, thanks to leading independent carbon offset standards like Gold Standard and Verra, carbon market actors can better quantify how much a given offset project contributes to sustainable development.

Improvements in gender equality are just one of many co-benefits that forest carbon projects provide. Others include the provision of sustainable livelihoods, the reduction of indoor pollution, and improved healthcare. While these attributes are necessary and important to quantify, they often consist of ‘fuzzier’ concepts. Take, for example, the Lango project, which significantly benefits the daily lives of local women. But by how much? And for whom? And how? Such questions can be very difficult to answer when you are talking about development impact.

Previously, carbon credit buyers were left to guess how much a given offset project contributed to the SDGs, or Sustainable Development Goals, the UN’s blueprint to a more equitable, sustainable, and prosperous future. This informal system of quantification led to a significant amount of ‘SDG-washing’ in the carbon market.

What is SDG-washing? Participants in the market coined the term to describe overstated development benefits associated with carbon offset projects.

Overestimating co-benefits is primarily the symptom of an emerging carbon market.  “It’s hard to tell the scale and an objectively compare one project to another when marketing material would just have the same SDG icon on Project A and Project B,” claims Sarah Leugers, Communications Director at Gold Standard. “[Market actors] are lacking the tools to be able to communicate and report [their impact] in a very clear and credible way.”

While these impacts may be secondary to companies’ primary goal of achieving net zero emissions, they are still worth measuring. “People are starting to really internalize the SDGs”, says Leugers. “They want to know, how are [carbon markets] really contributing [to development]?”

In fact, although they may be secondary for companies, sustainable development and climate mitigation have together been required core components of Gold Standard projects since it was first established in 2003.

The incentive for carbon credit buyers to quantify co-benefits extends beyond curiosity. Many market actors measure their SDG impact to create strong project narratives and enhance the credibility of their net-zero commitments. According to Ecosystem Marketplace’s Carbon Survey data, 62% of the tons of carbon purchased in 2019 were co-benefits certified. Thus, the demand for co-benefit quantification is strong. The main barrier to implementation, however, has been methodology.

Fortunately, there are major developments underway to bridge the resource gap. Both Verra and Gold Standard, major certification bodies in the voluntary carbon market, have designed much-needed tools for the measurement of co-benefits.

Verra’s SDG certification, SD VISta, is one flexible approach to quantifying co-benefits for both carbon offsets and other project types. Released in 2019, while not mandatory, the program encourages market actors to develop either their own methodology or monitoring metrics of co-benefit quantification. Acknowledging that project contexts and development impacts vary widely, Verra’s program enables a range of assessment options that go from internal verification by Verra, to the use of Independent Expert Evaluators for monitoring frameworks, to independent third-party certification when methodologies are developed.

The road to SD VISta certification is both flexible and rigorous. Thus far, Verra has registered one project, and 4 additional projects are in validation and verification stages.  The Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve Project, which meets all 17 Sustainable Development Goals successfully completed the registration and verification of monitored results under SD VISta, and “shows how projects can track progress against the SDGs in a rigorous and workable manner,” remarked Naomi Swickard, Chief Program Officer at Verra. “Many corporations who rely on carbon credits to meet ambitious climate goals value knowing that the carbon credits they purchase and retire have additional benefits beyond reducing emissions, and that they are independently certified.”

Likewise, Gold Standard launched the consultation phase for its SDG Impact Tools in early February 2021. The initial draft can be found here.

The tools build on past project experiences and industry expertise, mapping the typical indicators of sustainable development impacts and formatting them for quick, easy reference. Project owners take stock of their project’s development impact, both positive and negative, then ultimately assign those impacts to a specific SDG. While Gold Standard projects have been required to quantify and verify their SDG impacts, and have a design that enhances and promotes the goals of gender equality, social inclusion, and female empowerment, since the Gold Standard for Global Goals began in 2017, the SDG Impact Tools will make it easier than ever to measure and report these impacts, with standardized approaches and guidance.

And these are not the only development impact tools at the market’s disposal. Other certifications, such as the Climate, Community, & Biodiversity Standards and SOCIALCARBON are centered solely on co-benefits, meaning they can be applied to both carbon and non-carbon projects. Verra pioneered mechanisms to assess and certify community and biodiversity metrics via CCB starting in 2005, and in September 2020, Verra, W+ Standard, and Wonderbag of South Africa announced the application of the joint VCS/W+ Standard certification process to measure emission reductions and women’s empowerment results. Lastly, standards like Plan Vivo and the Fairtrade Climate Standard quantify co-benefits specifically for carbon projects.

As these tools are taken up by the market, the hope is that demand for co-benefits will increase and development impact will become a central aspect of carbon markets. According to Gold Standard’s Leugers, “We don’t even think about [development impacts] as co-benefits. We think about them as core benefits.”

Climate Change will be a Higher Priority in the 14th Five-Year Plan

This story first appeared on the WRI blog. Photo: Xinhua

02 March 2021 | In the “Guiding Opinion[1]on Coordinating and Strengthening the Work Related to Climate Change and Environmental Protection” (hereinafter referred to as “Guiding Opinions”) published by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) in January, the government has addressed several important and bold suggestions on the country’s national climate change policies. Considering the upcoming Two Sessions in early March and the heated discussions for a blueprint of the 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP), the timing and the messages delivered through MEE signals tectonic shifts in policymaking to tackle climate change.

In September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a surprising speech to the UN General Assembly that China would scale up its nationally determined contribution (NDC) by adopting more vigorous climate change policies and measures to peak carbon emissions before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality before 2060 (hereinafter referred to as 30&60 Goals). This “Guiding Opinions” supports President Xi’s ambitious 2060 commitment, and set the stage for the upcoming 14th FYP, which will detail necessary actions to secure the neutrality pledge and transform the whole economy.

What’s new from “Guiding Opinions”:

  • Three Important Expressions Appeared for the First Time:

MEE, originated from the former Ministry of Urban and Rural Construction and Environmental Protection (MURCEP) in 1988 and re-organized in 2018, had been putting ecological civilization and pollution governance on its top agenda for a long time. Climate change issues, meanwhile, were beyond its major priorities. The new “Guiding Opinions,” however, made a bold change in its phrasing by putting “climate change” ahead of “environmental protection.” In the Principle and Guideline sections, the document emphasized the overall planning of combating climate change and protecting ecological system, laying out a systematic approach toward the 30&60 Goals in the following sections.

Another new expression worth noticing is “carbon reduction.” MEE highlighted the role of carbon reduction as “the nose of ox” (a typical Chinese proverb meaning crucial and key) among all source control targets. The expression indicates that carbon is a higher priority than pollutants control – a major responsibility of MEE.

“Guiding Opinions” also brings in the concept of “dual control” — advocating advanced provinces to both control the per capital intensity and cap the total emissions of carbon dioxide. This marks a drastic shift from the previous intensity control-only regulations on energy consumption to an absolute cap, incentivizing markets to decouple economic growth and GHG emission. Home to the world’s largest population, China consumes over 50% of the world’s coal and is the world’s biggest GHG emitter. As a developing country, China has long emphasized its large population and relatively short development time, arguing to prioritize efficiency only to allow more flexibility and secure economic stability for its low-carbon transition. However, combating climate change is not about the impact of a single person or an average number; instead, it is the overall emission data that really matters and determines the actual temperature increase.

Apparently, over the past two years, lobbies and policy suggestions from environmentalists and researchers have largely facilitated the government’s understanding and action plans for climate change issues in the decades ahead.

  • Action Plan across National Levels, Industries, Sectors and Mechanisms

For the world, China’s 30&60 Goals are a big step forward. It means an encouraging transition from “why” to “how” — from vision to workplan. But for many domestic provinces and industries, it changes the rules completely, and in an undesirable way.

One of the many challenges ahead is the “inertia” of those regions which have been heavily dependent on high-emission industries such as coal mining. An unrelated example from the sports world might help illustrate how painful the transformation could be. Over years of exploration and study, the Chinese Olympic national table tennis team built up a world-class lineup and system before learning that the game itself might be removed from the Olympics, making all their previous efforts useless. The same thing is happening within those carbon-intensive regions and industries. They spent years developing and catching up, struggled to optimize their structures and improve proficiency, and now they are forced to throw all their achievements away in less than 30 years.

All these challenges are real. The question now is how we can deal with them. In this regard, “Guiding Opinions” is valuable as it provides with some concrete guidelines:

  1. Collaboration between Multiple Departments

The document suggests adding climate change-related content to central and local laws and regulations, specifically in areas such as environmental protection, resource and energy utilization, land and space development, and urban and rural planning and construction. In other words, MEE is providing strong recommendations to the other three government departments: National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), and Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Department (MOHURD). The collaboration across departments can encourage more ambitious actions from advanced provinces and cities. For example, during Shanghai Municipal Two Sessions, the city put forward an ambition to peak before 2025, five years earlier than the country’s national pledge. We are also expecting the city of Beijing and Shenzhen to make ambitious announcements. In particular, we hope to see substantial progress from Beijing during the 2022 Winter Olympics. For any ambitious city, overall planning and collaboration across various functions and between central government and locals is a task to be solved. World Resources Institute (WRI) has seen the challenges and has already dug into a few regions, in the hope of shedding lights on solutions. A few of the outcomes include the recently published Accelerating the Net-Zero Transition flagship report focusing on Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area and the Yangtze River Delta, and the CUT flagship report on cleaner urbanisation.

  1. Deployment of Diverse Mechanisms and Measures

We have learned from Europe and the U.S.[2] that economic measures such as putting a price on carbon dioxide can be an effective way to make companies and individuals voluntarily reduce carbon dioxide emissions. There are already eight pilot carbon emissions trading markets in China, and “Guiding Opinions” has repeatedly emphasized these emission-trading systems’ capacity-building as major opportunities to develop green investment and green finance. The workplan is to experiment with the power sector (which makes up 30% of the nation’s emissions) first and then push the boundary from a few pilot cities to the whole country.

Another incentive is called the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), a powerful platform encouraging corporations to take more ambitious climate actions. More than 450 companies running business in China have already joined SBTi[3], including P&G, Estée Lauder, Coca-Cola, Dell and Adidas. We encourage corporations to get involved through various platforms and measures to achieve net-zero as soon as possible.

Furthermore, “Guiding Opinions” has also advised on using nature-based solutions (NBS) in the face of climate challenges. NBS can be a strong tool to enhance the protection of biodiversity and the governance of ecosystems including mountains, waters, forests, arable lands, lakes, and grasslands. It can also help strengthen climate resilience through climate adaptation, mitigation and environmental restoration.

  1. Centralization of Sub-National Actors

“Guiding Opinions” talks a lot about building a positive relationship between the central MEE and the local departments. A unified legislation, implementation and supervision is essential to making ambitious actions happen. In the past, local governments have been autonomous when implanting environmental laws, whereas now MEE will be playing a bigger role. This new approach will largely increase work proficiency and add to MEE’s role in the overall planning.

Levels of actors should also include engagement from other parties, including NGOs, think tanks and research institutions. Taking advantage of observances such as Earth Day, World Environment Day and National Low Carbon Day are crucial to a sound narration of how China has progressed while combating climate change.

  1. Commitment from Industries and Sectors

“Guiding Opinions” provides a feasible workplan across different industries, sectors and sub-sectors and points out the most important actions:

  1. Energy: Prioritize the use of fossil fuel alternatives on the supply side.
  2. Industry: Optimize raw material technology, upgrade industrial structure and strictly control the construction of high-energy-consumption and high-emission projects.
  3. Transportation: Speed up the optimization and adjustment of the transportation modal share[4], accelerate the transition from high-energy, high-polluting road transportation to clean, low-emissions water and railway transportation, promote energy saving and new energy vehicles (NEVs)[5].
  4. Waste: Strengthen the centralized disposal and utilization of livestock waste, sewage and garbage; strengthen the control of methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases.

Sub-sectors including steel, building materials, nonferrous metals, chemicals, petrochemicals, electric power and coal are encouraged to bring about specific peaking timelines and action plans.

What more need to be done during 14th FYP

Although “Guiding Opinions” signals an obvious progress from the central government, gaps within across national and sub-national levels do exist.

One of the opportunities is to close the gap at the national level, especially in areas of necessary NDC enhancements, long-term strategy (LTS) and national (and sectoral) targets for non-CO2 reductions. With its 2020 climate targets met, China is on track to exceed the climate targets it set in its NDC in 2015. “Guiding Opinions” may wish to emphasize on the Paris Agreement mechanisms, particularly enhancing China’s NDC for more ambitious climate and energy targets and formulating an LTS and specific work plan to achieve 30&60 Goals, in line with the country’s mid- and long-term socioeconomic development strategy.

Another priority for the upcoming Two Sessions would be closing the gap across national and subnational efforts, and the central government splitting its overall goal to the appropriate provinces and cities wisely. Further guidance is needed on these five key issues:

  1. Despite the ground-breaking mentions of a coal cap and dual control, no detailed guidelines or next steps have yet been laid out. In this case, the “how”s are critical.
  2. When suggesting the capacity and system building of a national emission trading system. “Guiding Opinions” emphasized the power sector as a pioneer in the carbon market. However, there are tons of other sub-sectors that need clearer solutions.
  3. While “Guiding Opinions” has focused on CO2 emissions, it avoids covering China’s non-CO2 emissions, which are a significant contributor to the country’s GHG emissions. China can set a target for non-CO2 emissions, stabilize non-CO2 emissions starting in 2020 and begin their decline as soon as possible after 2025.
  4. An important sector — construction and building — is missing from the document and thus requires further discussions.
  5. While “Guiding Opinions” offers step-by-step action plans and recommendations for new climate mitigation regulations, only limited attention is paid to climate adaptation. This means a lack of backup plans when the goals are not met in time due to various reasons.


[1] According to Thomson Reuters Practical Law, Guiding Opinions refers to the official documents issued by government authorities to communicate government policies and put forward non-specific and non-operational opinions and solutions on issues of importance to the Chinese authorities.

[2] A 2019 study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) finds that efforts to put a price on greenhouse gas emissions are growing in North America.

[3] The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) drives ambitious climate action in the private sector by enabling companies to set science-based emissions reduction targets. Currently there are 450 companies which run business in China have already joined SBTi. Worldwide, more than 1000 companies have already made commitments under the powerful SBTi.

[4] A modal share (also called mode split, mode-share, or modal split) is the percentage of travelers using a particular type of transportation or number of trips using said type. Modal share is an important component in developing sustainable transport within a city or region. In recent years, many cities have set modal share targets for balanced and sustainable transport modes, particularly 30% of non-motorized (cycling and walking) and 30% of public transport. These goals reflect a desire for a modal shift, or a change between modes, and usually encompasses an increase in the proportion of trips made using sustainable modes. (Wikipedia)

[5] New Energy Vehicles (NEV) = Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle (PHEV) + Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV).

Could 2021 be a turning point for forests and climate change?

This story first appeared on the World Economic Forum.

19 February 2021

  • There is a renewed sense of optimism around tackling climate change – the international community must harness this momentum and scale-up efforts to protect and restore tropical forests.
  • A coalition of private and public sector partners have launched the Green Gigaton Challenge, which aims to mobilize funds to achieve its target of one gigaton of high-quality emissions reductions, per year, by 2025.

There is a good possibility that 2021 may turn out to be the spring after a long, dark winter. The light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel now appears within reach. The largest economy in the world has rejoined the international community in fighting climate change. The second largest economy has committed to a carbon neutrality target. The climate ambitions of the EU not only survived the pandemic, but rather got bigger and bolder.

Private sector commitments to net-zero are growing very rapidly indeed (often under pressure from governments). More companies are taking steps to address their climate risks and impacts, resulting in strong demand potential for offsets as a supplementary tool alongside internal de-carbonization. This renewed sense of optimism is an opportunity not to be wasted.

However, if we are going to make 2021 a turning point for forests and climate change, we need to adjust our strategy. Delivering the full mitigation potential of forests will require as much ambition as it will require pragmatism and recognizing where the opportunities lie for a quantum shift in scale, funding and results. We need to concentrate efforts and attention on coming together to support an ambitious objective for COP-26 and embrace flexibility on scaling-up finance to protect and restore tropical forests – or REDD+, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

Setting a measurable and ambitious objective for COP-26

We propose that COP-26 delivers a public-private bid for one gigaton of high-quality emissions reductions with a floor price for forest carbon starting at $10/tCO₂e and adjusted gradually upwards over time. This would represent an unmistakable signal of financial ambitions and be a powerful force to help change the economics and politics of deforestation in many parts of the world so as to make conservation and sustainable use of forests an attractive alternative. Success in delivering one gigaton of emissions reductions would in turn catalyse further even larger-scale private and public funding commitments. We are calling this the Green Gigaton Challenge.

We aim to replicate for deforestation what has been one of the drivers of change pushing for decarbonization in electricity and other sectors of the world economy: the combined effect of carbon prices and predictable demand (such as feed-in tariffs or other subsidized revenue streams for renewable energy). Prices send information to citizens (or “market participants”) on scarcity, and this in turn, signals opportunities for investment and behaviour change.

Development finance grants and loans will still play an important role in protecting forests. However, given the huge investment costs for forest country governments of ending deforestation, the bottleneck of due diligence process, accompanying traditional “input-based” aid has little hope of giving forest countries the fiscal resources to meet ambitious targets.

On the other hand, results-based finance that pays for delivery of measurable outcomes in terms of forest and climate protection has the potential to facilitate larger scale and more effective international funding support, as well as to mobilize private sector participation. Results-based finance allows donors to commit more resources to verifiable results as the risk of achieving those results is shared with the countries responsible. Another advantage is that forest countries themselves are better able to choose their own pathways to achieving goals, avoiding the conditionality often associated with input-based aid programmes.

Private sector investment and innovation as well as efforts by agribusiness companies and consumer countries to take deforestation out of commodity supply chains will also be important in delivering the full mitigation potential of forests. However, these actions can only go so far in the absence of ambitious policies and incentives on the ground in forest countries.

Predictable flow of finance is essential

With a sufficiently high and predictable carbon revenue stream, forest countries could expand national budget allocations knowing that the investment needed to achieve REDD+ outcomes would not lead to a long-term increase in the national debt. Credit rating agencies and development finance institutions could treat efforts to achieve and go beyond NDC goals as investments delivering positive financial returns. And donor governments could more confidently provide additional grant funding for capacity building.

Results-based payments have already shown results, even at low scale. Over the period from 2004-2012, Brazil demonstrated that a combination of indigenous territories and protected areas, strengthened law enforcement, finance reforms, supply chain initiatives plus some at-scale incentives can achieve dramatic results.

During this period, Amazon deforestation fell by 80%, reducing an estimated 3 billion tons CO₂e, or more than any other country has achieved in terms of reducing global emissions. It is also true that with lapsed enforcement, scant economic incentives to protect forest, and a government hostile to forest protection and indigenous rights, in 2019 deforestation rose to its highest level since 2008. While this trend is a major concern, deforestation remains below pre-2005 levels.

The $2 billion provided to Brazil through the Amazon Fund over 11 years was a small sum in the context of ending deforestation in the Amazon basin, especially when compared to agricultural loan subsidies offered annually without any environmental conditions. While recognizing the generosity of a too-limited group of donors, and being genuinely grateful for these contributions, they are not enough to sustain and extend progress and must be paired with significant policy and finance reforms.

Whether the Green Gigaton Challenge can make a difference is a function of price and volume: there is a number where the economics for conservation becomes overwhelmingly compelling. For example, a 1 gigaton annual bid over a decade starting at a floor price of $10/tCO₂e and increasing gradually to $30/tCO₂e would move the needle and change the trajectory of forest-use in the Amazon, Congo and Indonesian forests.

If you think this is an extreme example, keep in mind that a price of $30/tCO₂e is below the price of the allowance in the European ETS and that the total size of the bid is a fraction of the forecast costs of achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement – costs which could rise very rapidly if we cannot end deforestation. A recently published paper shows that realizing the full estimated potential for REDD+ would reduce the risk-adjusted carbon price by $45/tCO₂ in 2030, such that mitigation at prices below is expected to generate net mitigation cost savings for society).

Embracing flexibility

The launching of a REDD+ bid and the establishment of an attractive floor price will require financial support from the international community, and therefore a consensus on what constitutes a high-quality emission reduction. We believe that jurisdictional REDD+ is the best approach to ensure high levels of social and environmental integrity, as well as to mobilize the government actions that are needed to drive forest protection at a large scale.

In past years, several REDD+ standards have been used to assess quality, each attached to a particular funding source. Among them, and not considering project-based carbon credits for the voluntary markets, we have the standard applied by the World Bank`s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, the Tropical Forest Standard endorsed in 2019 by the California Air Resource Board (though REDD+ credits are not yet allowed in its Cap-and-Trade Program) and the Scorecard by the Green Climate Fund, which is currently under review. ICAO’s CORSIA has approved two REDD+ standards at the jurisdictional level, ART-TREES (Architecture for REDD+ Transactions – The REDD+ Environmental Excellence Standard) and the VCS-JNR (Verified Carbon Standard – Jurisdictional and Nested REDD+). The latter is currently undergoing a major revision.

It would be simpler to have a single REDD+ standard that gains the trust of donors, countries and private stakeholders. Those of us who interact with REDD+ government officials regularly hear complaints about the transaction costs of having to meet different standards for RBPs. These complaints are genuine and valid. In the meantime, we believe that ART-TREES is a good candidate to enable the market to get started and this does not close the door to the coexistence of high-quality standards. Our focus is on quality.

Jurisdictional approach and REDD+ projects

Would the choice of a jurisdictional approach close the door to participation of the private sector through REDD+ projects? Absolutely not. Private sector action and innovation on the ground is vital and can come in through projects as well as a variety of other public-private partnership arrangements within jurisdictional approaches. We do not believe that the available pot of private funding for forest conservation is fixed or limited – quite the contrary. It could grow rapidly once supply of high-quality emission reductions is unlocked. However, jurisdictional REDD+, including nested projects, provides significantly higher levels of social and environmental integrity than a stand-alone project approach. There is no need to wait for the nesting issue to be resolved before scaling the demand signal. Our proposal for a gigaton REDD+ bid will create incentives to accelerate jurisdictional programmes, including nesting of projects and other on-the-ground efforts.

Looking ahead

This year provides a unique opportunity to make forests a real pillar of climate mitigation efforts. This will require great ambition, a focus on key elements of change, as well as pragmatism and flexibility as we scale-up REDD+. A key element of change, and one that has not been tried so far, is to send a clear and unmistakable signal of ambitions for REDD+. The Green Gigaton Challenge aims to be such a signal. Let´s work together to ensure a bid for a gigaton in high-quality REDD+ emission reductions by COP-26.

How Do Countries’ New Emissions-Reduction Plans Stack Up?

This story first appeared on the WRI blog.

26 February 2021 | A new UN report finds that countries’ emissions-reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement are falling far short of what’s needed to prevent the most dangerous impacts of climate change.

It is imperative that countries that have not yet submitted their plans deliver much greater ambition this year and that countries that already put forward weak offers in 2020 revise their commitments upward.

In the 2015 Agreement, countries adopted a process in which they would submit more ambitious climate commitments (known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) every five years. Recognizing that the pledges they brought forward five years ago were insufficient to meet the Paris Agreement’s long-term goals, this process was meant, over time, to nudge the world onto a pathway to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C (2.7 degrees F). The first of these “ambition cycles” is now underway, with the expectation that countries submit new NDCs ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021.

The UN report examines the 48 NDCs from 75 Parties submitted through the end of 2020. It finds that these commitments will only cut emissions by about 2.8% relative to the pledges those countries submitted five years ago. Globally, to limit temperature change to 1.5°C, new or updated NDCs need to cut 2030 emissions by around 55% below the initial pledges.

While the UN report paints a grim picture, it’s not the whole picture. What the remaining countries do collectively over the next nine months will be decisive. Countries that have not yet submitted updated or new NDCs — plus several that have indicated they will resubmit with stronger targets — represent 75% of total global emissions. And there are reasons to believe these countries will go beyond what’s been done so far.

For one thing, 58 countries representing over half of global emissions have now committed to net-zero emission targets by mid-century. Many of them — including China and the United States — have not yet submitted updated NDCs, but their net-zero commitments suggest that their NDCs will need to be ambitious. Japan, South Korea and New Zealand — which initially submitted NDCs that did not strengthen ambition, but then committed to net-zero emission targets by 2050 — now say they will strengthen their NDCs before COP26.

Taken together, these net-zero goals would limit warming to 2.1 degrees C if they are achieved, down from the projected 3 degrees C of warming the world was on track for. But delivering on this promise will require countries to take near-term action, which is where the NDCs are essential. The spotlight is now on those countries that have yet to come forward with enhanced NDCs for 2030 — especially the major emitters.

Below, we assess the emissions-reduction commitments in the national climate plans submitted thus far, and what needs to happen ahead of COP26:

Which countries increased ambition in their new NDCs?

More than 40 countries (including the 27 EU member states) submitted plans that will deliver deeper emissions cuts than their initial NDCs.

The EU27 strengthened its 2030 target from an “at least 40%” reduction from 1990 levels to an “at least 55%” reduction. The UK, submitting its first NDC after leaving the EU, committed to 68%, beyond what would have been its contribution to the initial EU28 NDC.

In Latin America, Argentina committed to cut 2030 emissions 26% lower than its initial target; Colombia adopted an emissions cap nearly 37% lower than its previous target; and Chile, Costa Rica and Peru also strengthened their commitments.

Finally, a number of island states and other vulnerable developing countries such as Fiji, Jamaica, Kenya and Senegal also adopted more ambitious commitments.

For more than a dozen additional countries, it’s not possible to quantify the effect of their new plans on their GHG emissions, often due to a lack of data in the initial NDC. But most of these countries have also adopted more robust commitments.

Brunei, Rwanda and the United Arab Emirates, for example, established economy-wide emissions-reduction targets for the first time in their new NDCs. Other countries, including Nepal and Nicaragua, strengthened or added sector-specific targets. Countries such as Rwanda and Bangladesh added or strengthened policies on highly potent short-lived climate pollutants, including HFCs, methane and black carbon.

Which countries didn’t strengthen their NDCs?

Several countries — including Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore — submitted NDCs with GHG reduction targets identical to the submissions they put forward five years ago. Nevertheless, there is some cause for hope: Japan, South Korea and New Zealand have now indicated an intent to update their targets in the lead-up to COP26, following on their pledges to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. Australia and Singapore, on the other hand, have not signaled any intention to strengthen their targets.

Which countries submitted weaker NDCs?

Even worse, Brazil and Mexico weakened their emissions-reduction targets compared to what they committed to in 2015. At face value, both countries’ 2030 targets look the same as in their initial plans — a 43% cut from 2005 emissions and a 22% cut relative to business-as-usual emissions, respectively. But the updated NDCs contain other revisions that reduce the impact of their targets on 2030 emissions: Brazil increased its estimate of 2005 emissions by 38%, while Mexico increased its business-as-usual projection by 1.8%. As a result, 2030 emissions permitted under the pledges will be higher than they would have been under countries’ initial NDCs.

Which countries haven’t unveiled their national climate plans yet? And which are likely to enhance ambition?

Upwards of 80 additional countries have committed to submit enhanced NDCs. This includes major economies like China, the United States, Canada and South Africa. The United States and Canada have said they will complete their NDCs ahead of the Leaders’ Climate Summit on April 22, 2021, and President Biden has made it clear that climate action will be a top priority for his presidency.

To put the 1.5-degree target in reach, these remaining countries will need to take a far more aggressive approach than we’ve seen to date. To start, the United States should commit to cut emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030, and China can peak CO2 emissions by 2026 and commit to ambitious targets for non-CO2 gases. Other major economies like India and Indonesia, which have not yet committed to enhancing their NDCs, will also need to step up their efforts as well if we are going to get the climate crisis under control.

How will we know if new national climate plans collectively put us on a path to limiting dangerous levels of warming?

Globally, 2030 greenhouse gas emissions need to be 55% lower than in the initial round of NDCs in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C and prevent the worst impacts of climate change. If the countries that submitted NDCs to date continue to fall so far short of that benchmark, the countries that haven’t yet submitted NDCs would have to make even deeper cuts in order to make up lost ground.

Instead, all countries, and especially major economies, must summon all the ambition they can muster — whether they have already submitted an NDC, have committed to do so, or are still holding out. The climate crisis can’t wait.

Shades of REDD+
Corresponding Adjustments, Kyoto Protocol Nostalgia, and a Proposed Way Forward

25 February 2021 | Last month, the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets published its final report, in which it sketches a path towards a 15-fold increase in size for the voluntary carbon market, to between 1.5 and 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, by 2030. However, a number of non-governmental organizations and governments are concerned that the voluntary carbon market, instead of promoting mitigation, could undermine policy action in developing countries. They demand, among other quality criteria, “corresponding adjustments” as a remedy against the risk of greenwash that comes with net-zero and other corporate climate pledges.

Reflecting on comments received in response to my previous blog on corresponding adjustments, I contemplate the topic once more – this time focusing on why sustaining political will is more important than a myopic obsession on accounting. This blog looks at the link between additionality and political ambition and, from there, sketches a possible compromise solution that acknowledges the full need for transparency on corporate offsets without putting a brake on Paris Agreement ambition.

Accounting and a False Sense of Control: Kyoto’s Good Old Times

Avoiding double-counting of emission reductions is essential to ensuring the integrity of carbon markets. The Paris Agreement prescribes tallying accounts of countries that participate in carbon market transactions under its Article 6 through “corresponding adjustments.” Emission reductions can only be counted against one national climate pledge (dubbed NDC for “nationally-determined contribution”), or another international compliance system, such the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation.

However, when it comes to the voluntary carbon market, the current controversy it is not about double-counting of emission reductions, it is about double-claiming of emission reductions, which is completely different.

Double counting happens when the same emission reduction is accounted toward more than one climate pledge, which undermines the environmental integrity of both the pledges and emission reductions. Double claiming, however, happens when two different entities or jurisdictions claim some credit for the same emission reduction, as when a company in one country helps to reduce emissions charged to another country’s carbon accounting. While the Paris Agreement foresees measures against double counting -corresponding adjustments-, there is no indication that the drafters of the agreement were concerned about double claiming.

Double-claiming may obfuscate corporate statements on compensated emissions (offsetting), but it does not jeopardize the environmental integrity of the Paris Agreement.  Requiring corresponding adjustments to avoid double-claiming is shooting sparrows with canons. A cumbersome and complex measure is put in place that effectively disincentivizes urgent investments in climate mitigation. It may be worth asking – if mitigation action is real, and the emission reduction is measured and only captured once under the Paris Agreement – why are so many market observers worried about the semantics of a claim?

We may be dealing with a good deal of unprocessed mourning for the late Kyoto Protocol and its supposedly tidy accounting, where countries were listed with negotiated targets in an Annex of the Protocol, which allowed the establishment of a cap-and-trade system based on allocated assigned amount units (AAUs). Countries were linked via a transaction log, and adjustments of accounts were the automatic consequence of AAU trades among countries. The accounting was clear and clean and seemed to reflect the reality neatly.

In contrast, there are no binding international targets under the Paris Agreement and no new commodity that would be comparable to AAUs. NDCs are as messy as the world, as different as national circumstances demand, and rely on bottom-up action and not top-down international orders for their compliance.

The Kyoto Protocol is history, and for all its accounting beauty, let’s remember that it did not work. It covered an increasingly small part of the world’s emissions, the cap was full of hot air, a lot of windfall emission reductions were credited, it all but forgot about adaptation, and did not manage to keep the initially regulated countries committed to its system. The moment they fell out of love with the Protocol, discontented countries – such as Canada, and later Japan, New Zealand, and Russia – left it without any sanctions.

Accounting alone does not result in action and, deceptively, it gives a false sense of control over action.  Accounting is essential for transparency, and it’s a condition for accountability. However, it also tends to create a parallel universe that risks becoming more powerful than the reality that it seeks to reflect. Accounting can easily result in complex societal myth-making about control and predictability. It is therefore essential to constantly review the purpose and assumptions that guide accounting in our particular case: does it incentivize mitigation, or does it hold it back?

The verdict on the Paris Agreement is still pending. But what is clear is that it promises a more realistic path towards globally coordinated emission reductions. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol’s top-down climate targets, in the Paris Agreement’s “pledge and review” approach, each country sets its own target, which allowed for the global coverage of emissions. It elevates domestically driven climate policy into the international sphere while providing a mechanism for countries to ratchet up their target over time.  In other words, it bets on incentives and positive feedbacks instead of -largely ineffectual- sanctions. Harnessing government, corporate, community, and individual engagement, the Paris Agreement empowers all of us to contribute to its success. The voluntary carbon markets form part of that symphony of action.

Controlling offset claims may be the last effort to control climate change via accounting and – in this case – wording. However, multifaceted cooperation around mitigation action is far more powerful than a diced and sorted accounting and claims system, as neat as that would be from a bookkeeping perspective. Robust greenhouse gas inventories paired with overall transparency on progress towards climate goals are of supreme importance to ensure accountability under the Paris Agreement, not the question of who claims to have contributed to which emission reduction in this system.

Additionality Testing and Corresponding Adjustments

By ensuring that certified emission reductions are real, carbon standards can help to ensure that emission reductions and removals are additional to what would otherwise occur. This requires a review of additionality in the context of countries’ NDCs.

Where an emission reduction is additional, it does not need a corresponding adjustment to claim an offset. In the context of NDCs, an additional emission reduction is one that is not claimed by the government of the country where the mitigation activity takes place. Where a country has adopted economy-wide emission reduction targets backed by a set of clear policies and measures, emission reductions would have to go demonstrably beyond this target. However, this is a tall order that very few – mostly developed – countries will meet. And even where such clear targets have been established, these are vulnerable to the winds of change. Recent experience in the US and Brazil shows that a turnover in political leadership can result in a dismissal of previous climate ambition. This can make emission reductions additional that would have been part of the baseline scenario without a change in government.

But very few countries have absolute and predictable mitigation targets to start with. Many NDCs are not more than aspirational expressions of intent. They lack policy backing and are rarely the result of budgetary planning or emissions modeling. In many cases, the policy measures that could achieve climate targets are in constant flux, and very few countries have defined a concrete pathway to achieve their NDC. Some developing country targets are explicitly conditional on international finance and support. In these cases, NDCs formulate a broad framework for action rather than a pathway for government policy. Countries often depend on an additional push by corporates and non-state actors to achieve their NDCs. In these countries and contexts voluntary carbon market projects deliver mitigation that goes beyond what would have happened anyway.

The Paris Agreement and NDCs cannot replace activity-level additionality tests. National climate pledges differ in their specificity and ambition, are more or less concrete, and backed by different levels of political commitment. It is illusory to assume that NDCs are a fait accompli—that at the moment they are communicated to the UN climate secretariat, their compliance can be taken for granted.  Additionality testing can be facilitated by transparent sector benchmarks and standardized baselines, but it remains embedded in the context of the national circumstances of the host country. Projects that are required by regulation, or are considered “common practice”, are already excluded by additionality tests required by most standards. In addition, the establishment of additionality should consider potential future legislation, at least to the extent that it has already entered the planning stage.

A way Forward?

Looking at a compromise that ensures full transparency while creating positive incentives for action, the following measures could show a way out of the current impasse:

  • Carbon finance transactions that are formalized under Article 6.2 or 6.4 of the Paris Agreement come with a transfer of ‘internationally transferred mitigation outcomes’ and a corresponding adjustment to the transferring and receiving countries’ NDC accounting.
  • Where domestically binding targets exist, corporates could claim offsets if emission reductions generated under voluntary carbon market standards are backed by corresponding adjustments. Alternatively, voluntary carbon market transactions can be treated as climate finance that supports the NDCs of the country in which the project takes place. In this case, corporates could claim an emission reduction but not an offset (following, for example, the UK’s woodland carbon code).
  • Where such binding targets do not exist, additionality testing would consider the likelihood of policies to be implemented. Additional emission reductions could be claimed as offsets without requiring corresponding adjustments. Where the project fails to pass the additionality test, corporates can seek to procure a corresponding adjustment or simply claim to support the host country NDC.

Despite all concerns about greenwashing, corporate climate commitments should be encouraged and welcomed. Not all of them may be “gold standard” – in fact, some may be rubbish – but these commitments are voluntary and, by definition, additional to national regulation. This means that corporates act where governments fail to regulate and demand such action. For sure, civil society has to keep a keen eye on the credibility of corporate pledges, and how sincere companies pursue their implementation. However, as governments fall short on meeting international climate finance goals, we should embrace the unprecedented level of climate finance that corporates, through voluntary carbon commitments, can mobilize.

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Ecosystem Marketplace Announces New Suite of Data Sharing and Intelligence Platforms

28 January 2021 | A new suite of data platforms aims to enable more timely information on voluntary carbon markets price data, transactions, and dynamics, announced today by Ecosystem Marketplace, an initiative of Forest Trends. These developments will improve the ease of reporting and data connectivity for a growing global network of stakeholders including market participants and EM Carbon Survey respondents. 

As private sector climate commitments such as net-zero multiply, demand for more transparent carbon markets information is increasing among companies, investors, and governments. The call was amplified this week with the publication of final recommendations from the Mark Carney-led Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets (“the Taskforce”)as well as a new consultation document by the World Economic Forum and McKinsey & Company.  

Both the Taskforce and the World Economic Forum/McKinsey reports have identified a lack of comprehensive and regular information on carbon credit transactions, pricing, and retirements being a primary bottleneck to scaling the voluntary markets. 

“We are thrilled to announce what we are informally calling Ecosystem Marketplace 3.0’, which will offer enhanced carbon market tracking and powerful new capabilities for data accessibility to support market transparency, a crucial ingredient for scale,” said Stephen Donofrio, Director of Ecosystem Marketplace. 

We have the largest, most dynamic dataset on voluntary carbon market transactions in the world,” said Donofrio. “Transparency is a stated goal of the Taskforce. We’re excited for our developments will up open new opportunities for collaboration and increase the regularity of our ability to benchmark progress on scaling markets.” 

“Access to transparent and regular information on carbon credit volumes, pricing, and retirements have a key role to play as we scale voluntary carbon markets,” says Edward Hanrahan of the International Carbon Reduction & Offset Alliance. “Ecosystem Marketplace has long been the go-to source for objective market information through its annual market reports, and we’re excited to see this shift to offering deeper, more frequent intelligence.” 

Ecosystem Marketplace is a globally recognized platform for tracking carbon markets, with data reported from projects in nearly 40 countries in 2020. Over its 15-year history, EM has surveyed the market at least once per year to produce an annual State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets report.  

In its pilot phase, expanded services will also include united carbon credit issuance and retirement database from the voluntary carbon markets’ most prominent registries, including Verra, the Climate Action Reserve, American Carbon Registry, Gold Standard, and Plan Vivo. Future iterations will integrate data from additional market actors and Ecosystem Marketplace partners. The database will be updated monthly, with the capability to move to a daily service in the future in step with shifts in market liquidity.  

An enhanced online Carbon Survey platform will enable us to effectively reach more than 650 active market participants, which includes project originators, brokers, and retailers– the largest survey of its kind available by far, says Patrick Maguire, Senior Program Manager of Ecosystem Marketplace. Ecosystem Marketplace will also align its data collection with the Taskforce’s recommendations. 

“Markets are experiencing an influx in demand for voluntary carbon offsets,” remarks Michael Jenkins, CEO of Forest Trends. “We need to build upon existing market infrastructure ready to scale rapidly, including robust and credible information. It’s the only way that voluntary carbon markets can grow without sacrificing quality.” 

Ecosystem Marketplace is currently accepting applications to participate in this pilot phase. Invited pilot partners include Ecosystem Marketplace’s Strategic Supporters and a select group of committed organizations that have responded consistently to EM’s Carbon Survey. Organizations interested in participating in the pilot phase of EM 3.0 can inquire at 

The State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2020 reports are available free for download at the EM Carbon Markets Hub. 

Media Contact: Genevieve Bennett, gbennett(at]

Most Chocolate Companies Don’t Know Where Their Cocoa Comes From

17 February 2021 | You’ve got to hand it to those clerks of the old British Empire. Their records were good enough to identify the first farmer who planted cacao trees in Ghana way back in the 1870s. His name was Tatteh Quarshie, and he grew the trees from a handful of cocoa beans he’d acquired in Equatorial Guinea. Thus did a fruit that evolved in the understory of the Amazon, and which the Mayans called “Fruit of the Gods,” become the primary cash crop of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Today, these West African nations provide 70 percent of the raw cocoa on which the $180 billion chocolate industry depends.

Don’t, however, expect most of those multi-billion-dollar candy conglomerates to tell you which farms they get their beans from — or whether they’re the product of child labor or came at the expense of precious endangered forest, more than 90 percent of which have disappeared in these two countries since the 1990s.

That’s because just nine of the world’s 69 leading chocolate companies report being able to trace their supplies to individual farms, although an additional 30 companies say they’re in the process of doing so. At the same time, just six are implementing sustainability best practices agreed to under the Accountability Framework Initiative (AFi), which is a global environmental coalition formed in 2019 to end deforestation in commodity supply chains.

These are some of the findings in a new report called “Trends in the Implementation of Ethical Supply Chains,” which was published jointly by AFi and the Forest Trends Supply Change initiative, which tracks self-reported progress towards sustainability targets.

The six companies that report developing commitments in accordance with AFi guidance for their cocoa supply chains are Barry Callebaut, Cargill, Mars, Olam, Mondelez, and Unilever.

Why it Matters

Cocoa has been a key driver of deforestation in many countries, but most of the cacao trees planted in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire since 1990 are losing their productivity sooner than expected – in part because cacao thrives in shade and suffers in direct sunlight. As productivity drops, impoverished farmers move into the remaining forest, decimating valuable habitat and accelerating climate change.

To avert disaster, dozens of chocolate companies have vowed to help farmers plant back better. In 2017, they created the Cocoa & Forests Initiative (CFI), which aimed to end deforestation by, among other things, supporting the adoption of agroforestry techniques and implementing procedures for tracking and tracing sustainably-produced supplies.

”We see growing ambition, but not all commitments are created equal,” says Philip Rothrock, who manages the Supply Change initiative and co-authored the report.

“More than half – or 38 – of the influential companies we tracked have sustainable cocoa commitments, and half of these – or 18 – are reporting progress toward those goals,” he added. “Furthermore, 28 are conducting some sort of risk assessment for deforestation in their cocoa supply chains, while 39 are implementing traceability systems.”

What Next?

AFi was formed in 2019 in response to corporate concerns about the diverse and often contradictory reporting demands from environmental NGOs. Under the guidance, corporate commitments to end deforestation should meet basic criteria, such as including a target date, covering the company’s entire supply chain, and not just certain commodities.

“There’s still room for companies to broaden the scope of their commitments to be more comprehensive,” says Rothrock. “For example, many company commitments still do not include due dates nor do they cover all the regions they source from or all of the subsidiaries and joint ventures they control. Clearly, the devil is in the details.”

He emphasizes that governments of producer and consumer nations also have a role to play in promoting sustainable supply chains and points to earlier research, also from Forest Trends, showing that demand-side regulations can have a dramatic effect on forest cover.

“Emerging legislation in the EU, UK, and US to control imports of commodities linked with deforestation could be game changer,” he says. “By requiring greater transparency within cocoa supply chains, this could help level the playing field.” In fact, three influential companies Mars, Mondelez, and Barry Calbuat, alongside several environmental groups have already called for stronger environmental and social requirements for EU legislation. In making these changes, these consumer markets could have strong leverage to encourage sustainable production, but the key is how will governments enforce these upcoming rules and how will companies meet them?

About this Series

This story is part of a two-part series called “Ripening Cocoa ”, which is a companion to the intermittent series “Forests, Farms, and the Global Carbon Sink.”

Mandatory Sustainability Reporting Moves Closer to Reality

3 February 2021 | The Trustees of the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation met on Monday to review responses to a consultation paper published last year — specifically, the board addressed responses focused on whether there was enough demand for global sustainability standards for the IFRS Foundation should play a role, and, if so, what the requirements for success in doing so. The responses indicate growing and urgent demand to improve the global consistency and comparability in sustainability reporting, as well as strong recognition that urgent steps need to be taken and broad demand for the IFRS Foundation to play a role in this.

IFRS Standards are required in more than 140 jurisdictions, but not in the United States, which follows the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s (FASB’s) Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). The two bodies have tended to align over the years, and a move to mandatory sustainability standards could accelerate demand for renewable energy and carbon credits. The announcement comes just days after the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets unveiled a “blueprint” for ensuring that voluntary carbon markets can scale to meet growing demand without sacrificing quality.

Although voluntary reporting of sustainability criteria has soared in the past decade with 90 percent of companies in the S&P 500 index issuing some sort of sustainability report in 2020, there are no mandatory reporting requirements and no standards to ensure reporting is comparable and complete.

The IFRS Foundation began exploring the issue in response to a request from the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) as well as indications from regulators in the United Kingdom and Europe that mandatory reporting would soon be required.

Given this demand, the Trustees have agreed to undertake a further detailed analysis of feedback on the requirements for success and other conditions to be satisfied prior to consideration of whether to establish a new board. The Trustees agreed on the formation of a Trustee Steering Committee to oversee the next phases of work and added an additional key requirement for success—being the need for urgency to deliver global standards, most notably on climate.

Throughout the three-month consultation period, the Trustees led comprehensive outreach programs within their respective jurisdictions to inform their decision-making and to encourage broad participation across all geographies and stakeholder groups. This included more than 400 engagements across 33 jurisdictions, participation in more than 20 public events hosted by third parties and the hosting of webinars that attracted more than 3,000 registered users. Following that outreach, the IFRS Foundation received 576 comment letters from a diverse set of organizations and individuals from around the world. All responses to the consultation paper are publicly available.

The Trustees will be meeting next on 2-4 March 2021. Given the growing and urgent demand, the intention would be for the Trustees to produce a definitive proposal (including a road map with timeline) by the end of September 2021, and possibly leading to an announcement on the establishment of a sustainability standards board at the meeting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26 in November 2021.

Unpacking the New “Blueprint” for Bigger (and Better?) Voluntary Carbon Markets

27 January 2021 | After four months of exhaustive consultation among nearly 200 environmental and financial entities, including Ecosystem Marketplace, the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets (TSVCM) today released its “blueprint” for expanding voluntary carbon markets to support the global transition to net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

Launched in September by former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney (pictured) and the Institute of International Finance (IIF), the Taskforce estimates that carbon markets must grow at least 15-fold by 2030 to cut net man-made greenhouse-gas emissions in half by the end of the decade – a goal that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is necessary to prevent average global temperatures from rising to more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7°F) above preindustrial levels.

Such market growth will mean nothing if the underlying credits don’t work or if companies use them to continue emitting, and the Taskforce aims to forge agreement on practices that can help voluntary carbon markets scale up in ways that deliver verified ecological outcomes. The blueprint offers 20 specific actions divided among six topics, ranging from the creation of “Core Carbon Principles” (CCPs) and exchange-traded reference contracts to the establishment of a global regulator to coordinate existing standard-setting bodies. Once CCPs are established, the Taskforce envisions exchange-traded futures contracts that will provide a global reference price for a verified emission reduction as well as ways of valuing “additional attributes” such as habitat conservation and gender equality.

The blueprint identifies several impediments to growth, including the historical lack of climate awareness and the fragmented nature of existing voluntary markets and standards. It recommends ways of moving forward and establishes working groups to further develop recommendations in Phase 2 of the process.

Core Carbon and a Base Reference Price

As Ecosystem Marketplace’s annual State of Voluntary Carbon Markets (SOVCM) reports make clear, the voluntary carbon market is primarily an over-the-counter market, with credits from individual projects being sold bilaterally to intermediaries before finding their way to the public. The Taskforce recognizes that this practice may continue, but it envisions a global reference price similar to those used in other financial markets, especially those related to commodities.

In these markets, exchange-traded instruments – such as futures contracts built around specific baskets of interest rate products or bushels of corn meeting agreed-on grades and delivery points – are traded on a government-regulated exchange to generate a reference price, which in turn is used to set or negotiate prices in other grades or locations. These other grades and locations can result in either a premium or discount to the reference price.

To create the CCPs and market infrastructure, the Taskforce spawned working groups to also develop an umbrella organization that will coordinate existing regulators and standard-setting bodies.

Natural Climate Solutions

Drawing on research from McKinsey & Company and others, the Taskforce identified between eight and 12 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide credits that could be brought to market annually by 2030, with 65 to 85 percent of them coming from Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) – primarily conservation of endangered forests and peatlands, which accounted for 3.6 billion metric tons per year.

The blueprint, therefore, includes provisions for project-based REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, plus the enhancement of carbon stocks), but it emphasizes the need to nest such projects in jurisdictional efforts where possible and improve existing safeguards. It also recommends the creation of a supplier/financer matching platform that would make it easier to assess the creditworthiness of small suppliers.

Reduce, Report, Offset

The blueprint encourages consensus on when a company can utilize offsets to meet a net-zero commitment and encourages an approach similar to that championed by the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), which the Taskforce summarizes as “Reduce, Report, Offset,” meaning a company should first come clean on its emissions in a verifiable way and create a plan for eliminating them through fuel-switching or other direct measures, then it should submit to audits on its progress, and finally it should use carbon credits to offset those emissions it can’t eliminate internally.

It recommends the creation of a “High Ambition Demand Accelerator for the  Voluntary Carbon Market” (HADA-VCM) that will coordinate with existing efforts such as SBTi, Climate Action 100+,  and the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance (NZAOA) to develop principles for utilizing credits and for marketing offsets at point-of-sale, which critics argue leads to “guilt-free” buying of fossil fuels and other products that generate emissions.

“This is complementary [to direct reductions],” Carney said during a panel discussion World Economic Forum. “it’s one piece of the puzzle, but we need this market.”

Reductions vs Removals

Several issues proved contentious during the consultation process, and the issue of reductions vs removals is one of these. It is likely to remain so in Phase 2.

In early drafts of the blueprint, the Taskforce proposed the creation of two grades of credit based on whether they reduced emissions – by, say, funding low-carbon technologies or conserving forests – or removed greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere – by, say, deploying carbon capture technologies or planting trees.

In early drafts, credits that generated removals were seen as a premium grade over those that generated reductions, largely due to market demand from new buyers. Opponents of the proposal, however, argued that it made little sense to emphasize removals over reductions at this stage, when markets should be utilized to accelerate reductions across the board. Many argued that even differentiation is problematic when natural climate solutions are involved because conservation both reduces emissions and enhances sinks.

In the end, a consensus emerged that reductions and removals should be emphasized now, with a gradual shift to emphasizing removals as trees grow and new technologies mature. The blueprint does, however, group credits into two categories – avoidance/reduction credits and removal/sequestration credits – while not making a quality distinction.

What About Old Credits?

Another contentious issue was what to do with older credits, which are often cheaper than newer ones and represent reductions achieved in the past. The Taskforce initially leaned towards eliminating older credits, as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) had done with its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

Many consultation group participants argued that eliminating older offsets would punish organizations that took early action and that older offsets were a legitimate tool for offsetting historical emissions, as many companies are doing.

In the end, the Taskforce chose not to exclude projects based on vintage or start date but to review methodologies against the Core Carbon Principles (CCPs). The exact procedure for reviewing existing methodologies was left for Phase 2.

The Consultation Process: What Next?

The Taskforce published its first public Consultation Document on November 10, with 17 recommendations spread among six topics, and the IIF encouraged all market participants to submit feedback by December 10.

“Exactly how the infrastructure for the voluntary carbon market as outlined in this blueprint will be operationalized is still to be determined,” the blueprint states. “While there are important decisions yet to be made, we want to make sure that the final governance structure adds value and helps to drive further finance towards climate mitigation.”

Biden’s “All of Government” Plan for Climate, Explained

27 January 2021 | President Joe Biden is sending early signals that action on climate change will be front and center to his administration’s agenda, and that his climate policy will be intertwined with his economic plan.

“Biden’s economic agenda is his climate agenda; his climate agenda is his economic agenda,” Sam Ricketts, co-founder of the climate policy group Evergreen and a senior fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress think tank, told Vox.

Though many of Biden’s early actions are centered on speeding up Covid-19 vaccinations and more immediate economic relief for Americans, the White House is positioning its next big policy push on creating jobs through infrastructure. And Biden’s goal is to make his economic recovery green, based on conversations with those familiar with the president’s thinking.

“When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs,’” Biden said in a July campaign speech announcing his $2 trillion climate plan.

On Wednesday, Biden signed a set of executive actions meant to begin making this plan a reality. In them, he directed his administration to take a “whole-of-government approach” to combat climate change, which includes — among other initiatives — ordering federal agencies to purchase electricity that is pollution-free, as well as zero emission vehicles, and directing the US Department of Interior to pause entering into new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore.

These new orders come on top of Biden’s day one executive actions to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and directing his agencies to reverse a number of former President Trump’s actions slashing environmental regulations and emissions standards.

But Biden’s real stamp on climate will come from intertwining ambitious climate goals like getting to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 with a bold economic recovery bill — set to be released next month. It will take action by Biden’s White House and Congress to make this plan a reality.

The president’s climate team is headed by two climate czars: White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy, who will oversee the nation’s domestic climate policy, and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, who will represent the US on the world stage when it comes to climate. President Barack Obama’s administration had one climate czar, and experts told Vox that Biden doubling that number and placing several other climate experts in key Cabinet posts signals it’s a pressing priority for the president.

“The era of us having to do climate as this niche set of actions is over,” Josh Freed, the founder of the Climate and Energy Program at the center-left think tank Third Way, told Vox. “I think the thing that is really transformative potentially about this administration is it’s much bigger than a climate bill or a handful of bills.”

Of course, Biden’s aggressive goals to get the US to completely clean electricity by 2035 and to net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050 is easier said than done. Not only will Biden have to contend with congressional Republicans, he’ll also have to balance the wants of environmental groups that want him to go big on renewable energy with unions, some of whom are more wary of what it could mean for organized labor — in part because there are fewer union jobs in the renewable energy sector.

Biden has a long way to go, but multiple experts say his ambitious plans coupled with his initial personnel picks are an encouraging start.

“I’ve done this work for a really long time and it was awesome to be a part of the Obama administration, but they’ve put this on steroids,” Carol Browner, who served as Obama’s climate czar and EPA administrator throughout Bill Clinton’s presidency, told Vox. “It’s ambitious, it’s proactive, it’s durable action on climate change.”

Biden is hiring a lot of people with a background in climate change

McCarthy and Kerry will work in tandem from the White House. After four years of a Trump administration that treated Obama’s environmental and emissions regulations with a slash-and-burn mentality, they will have to start by undoing a lot of Trump’s actions.

McCarthy, who served as Obama’s EPA administrator from 2013 and 2017, is well-regarded by many environmental groups. “We know rejoining [Paris] won’t be enough,” McCarthy told reporters recently, outlining executive actions by Biden for his agencies to review and renege Trump’s actions on lowering emissions standards, including revoking Trump’s presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

“There is enormous opportunity with a whole-of-government approach that this administration is going to take to make meaningful progress,” she added.

Kerry, who served as Obama’s secretary of state and as a close Biden adviser on climate, is a natural fit to represent the US in international climate talks. Climate change is a global issue, and under Trump, the United States took itself out of the international effort to reduce emissions under the Paris agreement. A big part of Kerry’s job will be working to rebuild goodwill with countries wary that the US pulled out of the agreement to begin with. To do that job effectively, he’ll need regular updates from McCarthy on what the federal government is doing at home to drastically lower US emissions.

“The two pieces have to coexist, both the domestic and international,” said Heather Zichal, a former Obama White House staffer who was integral in creating Obama’s Clean Power Plan. “We need to be prepared to say what we’re prepared to do as a country. The international work is once we know what we’re capable of, we’re better able to work with the international community.”

There’s also the potential that two climate czars who both report to the president could disagree over the direction of US climate policy. Kerry’s ability to do his job well will be entirely dependent on the ability of McCarthy and other domestic officials to make progress on climate at home.

In addition to McCarthy and Kerry, Biden selected former Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico as a historic pick to lead the US Department of the Interior (Haaland is the first Native American to do so). His pick for the Environmental Protection Agency is Michael Regan, the secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, and Biden selected former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm as US secretary of energy. To round out the list, McCarthy’s deputy in the White House is Ali Zaidi, the former New York chair of climate policy and finance.

Ricketts, the co-founder of Evergreen Action, told Vox that this team is “also one that’s demonstrated experience at the state level, and comes from places that are actually making progress. There’s a lot the federal government needs to learn from states.”

The president’s climate-focused picks also go beyond environmental agencies. Brian Deese is Biden’s top economic adviser and director of the National Economic Council, and was a key figure in negotiating the Paris agreement in Obama’s administration.

Biden’s Wednesday executive order charges Deese and McCarthy with leading a new Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, to try to prevent further environmental damage in communities impacted by coal mining, oil drilling and fracking — and see if some of these areas can be converted into hubs for renewable energy.

Some progressive climate groups, including the Sunrise Movement, were wary about Deese because of his time as the global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager. But Sunrise political director Evan Weber also told Vox that the fact Deese’s appointment to the National Economic Council was being framed around climate, as well as economic growth, was encouraging.

“We do hope there’s central coordination and direction. We see Gina and Ali hopefully as the conductors of the federal government climate symphony,” Weber told Vox recently. “I think that these are very encouraging signs, but personnel is the first step of the puzzle and the proof is going to be in the pudding. How urgent are they going to be in their action, how much more ambitious than Obama?”

Biden could put the full force of the federal government toward fighting climate change

Multiple former Obama administration staffers told Vox that even with all of these appointments, the person who really matters in all of this is Biden himself. Presidents have to be invested in an issue for them to throw the full weight of their administration behind it.

Biden becoming a potential agent of change on climate may be surprising for some; it wasn’t a top issue for the president throughout his decades in the Senate. But climate groups also saw some opportunity: Biden did plenty of work around renewable energy as vice president, especially during his tenure overseeing Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan. And like Kerry and McCarthy, Biden is a grandparent who is concerned about what a warming planet will mean for his grandchildren’s future.

Biden’s bullishness on climate also comes in large part from the fact that he sees renewable energy options like wind and solar as having the potential to drive the green economy through power generation. Still, Biden could have his work cut out for him to convince some major unions that endorsed him that an economy completely powered by renewable energy is the way of the future.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka recently told Vox his union has told Biden’s team “what we think strikes the right balance between doing what we need to do to go green and at the same time not upending or putting a lot of people out of work in the process.”

It also comes from seeing the dire impacts of climate change in historic wildfires, hurricanes, and droughts. Science has never been more clear on our short 10-year window to bring down the earth’s warming or face catastrophic consequences — and many of those impacts can be seen each year.

“Leadership starts from the top,” Zichal told Vox. “The fact Biden has made it clear this is a top priority, we need to leave no stone unturned and move aggressively — that really, really matters.”

Past administrations have typically relegated climate change and environmental issues to a handful of agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Interior.

Using all of the federal government to combat climate change also empowers agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development to implement new sustainability standards for newly constructed or upgraded affordable housing. It means that the Department of Transportation could be charged with setting up more charging stations for electric vehicles, or spend more money on public transportation. And it means that the Department of Agriculture tries to work with the nation’s farmers to reduce the emissions coming from livestock and soils — about 10 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions in 2018.

The White House and the federal government have a lot of tools they can use to combat climate change, even beyond pushing a green infrastructure package through Congress. In addition to using government regulations to change emissions standards for vehicles and appliances, Biden’s administration also plans to leverage its own buying power through federal procurement. This way, the federal government can spur change in the private sector.

“The government has many different tools; the good news about Biden is he’s looking to use all of them,” Browner said.

The US government is one of the world’s largest consumers, and Biden’s administration is already urging its agencies to buy American. It could also incentivize them to buy sustainably by being an outsize competitor in the free market.

“It’s a market signal of where large purchasers are headed, and it gives companies an early opportunity to move,” Freed, who works at Third Way, said.

The US economy is already trending toward renewable energy; renewables power about 11 percent of US energy consumption (the same amount as coal) but still pale in comparison to oil and natural gas. Biden’s administration could rapidly accelerate that trend. Biden has already staked out aggressive decarbonization targets, but his administration needs to move quickly to achieve them.

“The private sector and the economy shifted far more dramatically toward clean energy; it’s just happening,” Freed said. “The politics have changed, and the urgency has changed, and it makes the landscape look a lot different than it did in 2017 or even 2013.”

Network Connects Indigenous Knowledges in the Arctic and U.S. Southwest

22 January 2021 | On one level, the Arctic and the U.S. Southwest have little in common: One has kilometers of bone-chilling temperatures, ice, and months of darkness; the other has towering cliffs of red rock, parched soil, and broiling summers.

But Indigenous Peoples in each region face similar challenges to food resilience and sovereignty. Because of the colonization of Native lands, Indigenous Peoples have been restricted from accessing, cultivating, and managing their traditional foods. At the same time, climate change in both regions is rapidly altering the landscape.

The Indigenous Foods Knowledges Network (IFKN) connects Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, community members, and leaders from the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic and sub-Arctic and the U.S. Southwest to coproduce food sovereignty solutions. The research coordination network was created in 2017 by the University of Colorado and the University of Arizona and is driven primarily by Indigenous community leaders and scholars.

Members of the network exchange knowledge about ways to maintain traditional ways of life, from river restoration, community gardens, and farming practices to culture camps in which Indigenous Knowledges are shared with future generations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added urgency to the project, because Indigenous elders, who are often the knowledge carriers, are especially at risk from the coronavirus.

A Threat to Foods Is a Threat to Identity

The network focuses on a cornerstone of culture: food.

“It’s not just something [we] physically eat, but it’s part of our ceremonies….It is our connection to the land, to our nonhuman kin,” said Mary Beth Jäger, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a research analyst at the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona who serves on the IFKN research coordination team. Jäger spoke about IFKN in December at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2020.

Yet access to traditional foods for Indigenous Peoples is strained.

In the Arctic, ice is thinning dangerously under hunters’ feet. Animals like beavers have strayed from their natural habitats, bringing new diseases, such as giardiasis, to communities unfamiliar with them. In the Southwest, repeated droughts have left crops thirsty, and monsoon rains are changing in intensity.

Commercial pressures threaten food security, too. In the Arctic, the Gwich’in have sued the Trump administration for charging ahead with oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of the tribe’s caribou habitat. Commercial interest in the traditional southwestern tepary bean by non-Indigenous customers is driving up prices and reducing access to the food staple.

Communities shouldn’t have to face these issues alone, said IFKN steering committee member and Native Movement deputy director Shawna Larson, who is also the vice chairwoman of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council. “We can learn from one another, teach each other, and also work together on finding different solutions.”

Innovative solutions abound in communities: Ahtna leaders of Chickaloon Village in Sutton, Alaska, created a camp to share Indigenous Knowledges with younger generations. The youth learn to fillet and smoke salmon, collect wild plants, and scrape moose hides.

In the Southwest, the Gila River Indian Community has experience fighting for—and winning—rights to traditional resources. The community won the largest Native water rights settlement in history in 2004 to restore access to water taken by colonial settlers starting in the late 1800s.

Members of both communities hosted delegates from IFKN to share these success stories.

Braided Knowledge

Even though Indigenous Peoples have cultivated a deep understanding of lands and ecosystems, Western science has often disregarded these ways of knowing or even co-opted them.

“Indigenous Knowledges go through the ultimate peer review process,” said Lydia Jennings of the Pascua Yaqui and Huichol Nations. Jennings is an IFKN steering committee member and recently received her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.

“The knowledge one generates, say, [about] where an animal lives, where certain plants grow, is more rigorous because it literally means survival for communities who depend on traditional food or subsistence food traditions,” Lydia said. “If you collect inaccurate data, you might not eat or [you might] get sick.”

The network harnesses multiple ways of knowing, which Jennings likens to “braiding knowledge systems together.”

“Instead of focusing on Western science, it’s focusing on the idea of utilizing Indigenous research processes and embracing and respecting Indigenous Knowledge systems,” Jäger said.

Although the network includes some non-Indigenous researchers, those researchers center Indigenous Peoples, their communities, and Knowledges at the forefront and follow the lead of Indigenous members, said Jäger. The network is funded by a National Science Foundation program that emphasizes studying social systems alongside the natural and built environments.

Braiding these knowledge systems together is “very healing, in the sense of passing that knowledge down that’s been tried to be broken and to be removed out of the culture by colonization,” said Jäger.

Meetings on the Land

The backbone of IFKN involves visits to Indigenous lands to share stories, foods, and Knowledges. Issues discussed range from ongoing river restoration projects, getting traditional foods into nursing homes, and the effects of colonial mining and extraction on food and medicinal plants.

The first visit was by invitation from the Gila River Indian Community in 2018. “That’s a big, important thing for us, that we’re invited,” said Jäger. The network also compensates its hosts.

Importantly, participants say, meeting on the land provides space for deep connection. “There is a difference in how we act and how we talk,” said Jäger. “We eat a lot when we’re together. And we have really good laughs.” After one trip to Finland, Larson told a fellow attendee, a member of a Skolt Sámi community, that “she was like my sister.”

Members of IFKN have met with communities within Finland, Alaska, and Arizona. COVID-19 dashed plans to gather in person at the Hopi reservation, but the network had already planned a series of online webinars.

Quick to Pivot to COVID-19

The strong bonds of the network made it possible to quickly react to the pandemic.

IFKN members received a National Science Foundation rapid response grant to study the effects of COVID-19 on food access for Indigenous communities in the Arctic, the sub-Arctic, and the U.S. Southwest.

Interviews of Indigenous community members and data analysis will begin this month, and the grant will run for 1 year. Althea Walker, a tribal climate science liaison at the Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center at the University of Arizona, said the grant is important to understand the immediate vulnerabilities from COVID-19.

“Overall, addressing these vulnerabilities that have become apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic allows us to be better prepared for other crises, like the climate crisis,” Walker said.

Crediting Wind and Solar Power for Saving Species

13 January 2021 | Eighteen to thirty percent of the species on the planet (8.7 million species) are at risk from the climate change that will occur if America and all countries do not rapidly shift to a net zero climate footprint. Using Energy Innovation scenarios, the U.S. needs to install approximately 750 GW of additional wind power and 550 GW of solar by 2050 to help prevent us from tripping into that extinction apocalypse.

Many of those renewable projects, especially ones on federal lands, require permits or authorizations under the Endangered Species Act, Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, or other wildlife laws and go through an environmental impact analysis or assessment. However, today when those projects are reviewed, only their negative impacts on wildlife receive consideration.

Yet these are projects that will themselves prevent wildlife extinctions because of the kind of energy transition they deliver.

What might the beneficial cumulative effects analysis of this build-out look like for wildlife? How many extinctions would U.S. wind and solar development prevent? Here is a back of the envelope calculation.

  • Transitioning from fossil fuel to renewable power represents approximately 1/4th of the wedge of solutions the U.S. needs to put in place to meet a net zero goal – that is based on the 27 % contribution of the electric sector to US greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Actions in the U.S. represent approximately 15 % of the global solution based on the percent of the problem we are responsible for.
  • Eighteen percent of 8.7 million species is 1.566 million species facing a high likelihood of going extinct due to climate change. (a similar proportion are already at risk because of habitat loss, invasive species and other ongoing threats)
  • A gigawatt if wind power might take 418 commercial-scale wind turbines to produce. (However, turbine technology continues to evolve. In 2020, nearly 10% of new projects were proposing to use 4.0 MW turbines or larger ones. Therefore, it is likely that in the near future it would take 200 or fewer turbines to produce the same energy.)

42 prevented extinctions:

Put those numbers together and each gigawatt of installed solar or wind power is responsible for approximately 42 prevented species extinctions somewhere on the planet. Or to break it down further, every ten (2.5 MW) wind turbines installed prevent an extinction somewhere.

A wind farm like Shepherds Flat in Oregon, with 338 2.5 MW turbines, is tied to approximately 33 prevented extinctions of species. The Gemini solar project outside of Las Vegas would prevent 29 extinctions, or one extinction prevented for every 250 acres of solar panels installed.

NEPA, eagle permits, or endangered species permits and authorizations do not have any ready procedure through which to account for these beneficial effects or to discount mitigation requirements for other harmful effects on specific species, but documenting these benefits is nonetheless important. For example, the documentation would provide a strong connection between projects and public biodiversity conservation goals and could be use as the basis for public subsidy of required wildlife mitigation, funding for additional permit review personnel, or policy that gives a more favorable tax treatment to the wildlife mitigation expenses of renewables projects.

A programmatic EIS on a national wind and solar installation 2050 goal could establish a consistent basis for standardized analysis of these kinds of benefits on tiered project by renewable energy project reviews.

Impacts on a specific species must not be ignored because of benefits to other species, distant in time or space. Those impacts on endangered species, migratory birds, or eagles still need avoidance or offsetting. But its common sense that projects that create modest harms and major benefits get treated differently than projects that only create harms.

If we are going to solve climate change and mitigate its immediate impacts, we need a wildlife agency that is able to speak up for all wildlife species, through analysis like this, and policy that incorporates the analysis into decision-making.

What We Got Right on Deforestation in the Past Decade

12 January 2021 | We can all agree that forests are important for the survival of humanity. In addition to sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, they provide a slew of unappreciated services: from supporting pollination of 75 percent of global crops, providing firewood for 880 million people, capturing water, and acting as habitat for endangered species.

Most current deforestation takes place in tropical developing countries, but it’s fueled by our developed world appetite for commodities such as beef, soya, palm oil, and avocados, which together account for 40 percent of all deforestation, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) most recent State of the World’s Forests report. Even our shift to renewable energy is contributing to deforestation by fueling demand for minerals such as lithium.

While it’s easy to get depressed, there has been plenty of progress the last decade to turn forests into a sink, rather than a source of carbon emissions, while continuing to provide for the livelihoods of local communities. The devastating impact of zoonotic virus pandemics such as COVID 19, which are caused by human encroachment on natural habitats, might make 2020 a turning point to increase awareness and accelerate action to protect the remaining forests that are vital for a healthy global ecosystem.

Global Overall Slowing Deforestation Rates

Although the headlines have been grim, and deforestation is increasing in some areas, such as the Amazon, overall deforestation rates globally have decreased in the last decade compared to the 1990s and the 2000s – from 15 million hectares per year in the period 2000-2010, to 10 million hectares per year in 2015-2020.   Around half of the world’s forests are still relatively intact (49 percent) and 18 percent are legally protected, according to the FAO.

The FAO report further tells us that the geographical spread of deforestation is not equal, with net forest gains made in Asia, Europe and Oceania, and a decrease in deforestation in the last decade compared to the previous, in South America, Asia and Europe.  Note that these are aggregated country level datasets, and deforestation rates will vary from country to country.

Progress in International Mechanisms to Reduce Deforestation

When I started working in forest and climate change policy back in 2010, international negotiators at year-end climate talks in Cancun (COP 16) had just agreed that developing country governments who implement activities to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+) should submit a national forest emissions reference baseline. This will be used to measure performance and receive payments for results to unlock $36 billion in funding committed by international and domestic finance to conserve forests.   Although progress has been slow and few countries have yet to receive payment for results, so far 50 countries have submitted an emissions reference baseline, which covered over 70 percent of all forests in 2018.

The importance of forests and REDD+ was highlighted in the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, where 73 developing countries identified forest and land use as a key mitigation element in their nationally determined contributions submitted under this agreement.

As of 2018, five countries have submitted Biennial update reports to the UNFCCC, which has amounted to emission reductions 6.3 billion tons of  MTCO2eq, which is around the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. 

Increased Corporate Commitments to Eliminate Deforestation

More than 473 companies have committed to end deforestation in their supply chains through the Consumer Good Forum (CGF) and 2015’s New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF). Although signatories to NYDF as a whole missed the target year 2020, the pledges sent a strong market signal to improve accountability and transparency in the commodity sectors.   Progress has been made by the cocoa, soy and palm oil sector in particular to certify products to ensure that commodities are not continuing to encroach on forest land. The soy moratorium Brazil has shown to correlate with reduced deforestation rates in the Amazon.

A law has been proposed in the UK to make companies accountable for their supply chain and prove that the commodities they trade come from legal sources.  Although this would only cover a small number of large businesses, if approved, this law could set precedence for other countries to pass similar laws and for companies to improve traceability and accountability in their supply chains.

Improvements in Forest Monitoring Tools

Governments, companies and citizens have better information on forests than ever before, thanks to the rapid technological progress made in the availability and scale of satellite imagery, machine learning algorithms, image processing and automated classification. This has greatly improved the timeliness, scale and accuracy of land cover maps, which are being made available to anyone with internet access thanks to cloud- based information platforms. This progress has been evident through projects such as Forests 2020 that I have been collaborating on over the last four years. However, as a recent article in the Economist pointed out, artificial intelligence has its limits and a key finding from the project has been that improved human skill both in developed and developing countries play a vital part in classifying, validating and calibrating maps to ensure high accuracy.

We now have the tools to monitor the impact of policies, programmes, and supply chains on forests, we just need the political and corporate will to do some deep introspection and implement the necessary changes needed to adjust policies and investments.

Changes in Consumer Behavior

The conversion of forests to pasture for cattle is one of the leading causes of deforestation globally, especially in Latin America.  Pasture is then often converted to soy production, which is also used for animal feed, primarily pork.  Meat consumption has reduced during 2020, mainly due to fewer people dining out (where people tend to eat more meat), temporary closure of meat packing factories and reduced purchasing power.  According to FAO, beef consumption had already been reducing gradually since 2019, generally being replaced by increased consumption of chicken, which is better for the climate, as beef production emits four to eight times more emissions than pork or chicken.

The number of vegans in the UK has increased six-fold from 150,000 in 2006 to 600,000 in 2018, according to the Vegan society.  The meat free food industry is now worth £740 million in 2018, up from £539 million only three years earlier.  A vegan diet might not be for everyone, but more people are reducing meat consumption through “flexitarian” diets as well, and challenges such as Veganuary.

Barriers to Progress

Although I have listed some of the positive outcomes of the last decade to put a brake on deforestation, many 2020 targets such as halving natural forest loss by 2020 compared to 2014 and achieving deforestation free supply chains by 2020 have been widely missed. We are still far from the goal of increasing forest area by 2030, due to a variety of complex reasons, some of which are described below.

Deforestation in Chiapas, Mexico. Credits: Carlos Herrera

Wider Political Agendas

Although globally deforestation rates have slowed, Brazil hit the headlines this year with a surge in deforestation of 9.5percent compared to the previous year, to 11,088 km2 from 2019 -2020.  This is linked to the current president Bolsonario rolling back environmental protections and encouragement of mining and agricultural activities in the Amazon, which has undone the progress made in the last decade when deforestation was reduced from 27,500 km2 in 2004 to 6,200 km2 in 2011 (the size of Devon).  

Likewise in Colombia, deforestation hit an all-time high in 2017 when 5425 km2 was deforested, due to the Peace deal with the FARC leading to land grabbing and clearing for cattle in previously inaccessible areas in the Amazon.  It has now dropped to 1589km2 in 2019, but it illustrates how wider political processes can have an enormous impact on deforestation rates.

There are arguments that forest protections are being rolled back by developing country governments in response to the pandemic, in an effort to stimulate their economies (NYDF, 2020) and preliminary data show that deforestation in the global tropics might have increased during the pandemic compared to previous years.  However, more accurate data takes time to process so a more detailed analysis will not be ready until 2021.

Current planned Infrastructure investments such as dams, mines and other infrastructure total $777 billion globally which often adversely impact forests and communities living in them, making investments to keep forests standing look miniscule. Decisions are more than often made top-down and behind closed doors – even though these infrastructure projects are vital to alleviate poverty in some cases, a more integrated and participative approach is needed to plan developments to take into consideration the forests and communities that live in them.

Lack of real corporate action to eliminate deforestation in supply chains

Despite 78percent of companies making commitments to stop biodiversity loss, only 23 out of 225 companies (10percent) reported on their progress to meet goals and generally performed poorly. Many companies were not willing to shoulder the cost of changing production practices to become more sustainable while meeting market demand (TFA, 2018).

Excluding suppliers that deforest through commodity certification will not be enough to stop deforestation – more technical and financial support is needed for smallholders that make up the bulk of the complex supply and to prevent leakage to other regions that are not covered by commitments.  For example, although 65percent of global production of palm oil has committed to deforestation free certifications, in Malaysia and Indonesia, only a third of all production is covered by these commitments.

It seems that while companies are eager to sign up to commitments to greenwash their corporate image, few are able to implement the necessary changes and bear the costs of changing their production practices.   Although some important steps have been made in the commitments made by companies to reduce deforestation in their supply chains, there is an urgent need to link to larger scale regional wide agreements, involve smallholders and link efforts to public sector programs.


Even though there has been some progress made in the last decade to build the right tools, policies and frameworks to slow deforestation, it is a complex process that is influenced by many political, social and economic factors.  As consumers and citizens, we can put pressure on companies and governments to ensure that the products we consume and the infrastructure projects our taxes pay for, don’t continue to fuel deforestation.  However, we need a wider change in the development paradigm to ensure that forests are valued for the protection and benefits they bring.

We have more and better information to hand than ever before, so there is no longer an excuse for inaction.

Let’s hope 2020 marks the turning point in the next decade!

What Does 2021 Hold for Tropical Forests?

This story first appeared on MongaBay

5 January 2021 | 2020 was a rough year for tropical rainforest conservation efforts, as explained in Mongabay’s year-end wrap-up on rainforests. So what’s in store for 2021? Here are 11 things to watch.

Post COVID recovery

The pandemic itself presented incredible challenges for conservation, including crushing ecotourism-based livelihood models, creating hardships for local communities and researchers, pushing NGOs to pull out of field projects, spurring a rise in the price of many tropical commodities that drive deforestation, and redirecting funding and attention from environmental law enforcement. But measures to jumpstart the economic recovery made the situation worse in some places. Peru provided stimulus money to companies involved with illegal logging, Indonesia passed a sweeping deregulation law and other programs that could unleash large-sale deforestation for oil palm plantations and coal mines, and countries from Brazil to Cambodia turned a blind eye to illegal forest clearing and encroachment. As part of their stimulus programs, several tropical countries are pushing potentially destructive large-scale infrastructure projects while relaxing environmental oversight at the same time.

Bend in the Javari river
A bend in the Javari river in the Amazon rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

But conservationists argue it doesn’t have to be this way. A number of reports published in 2020 have called the post-COVID recovery a unique opportunity to shift away from environmentally destructive business-as-usual practices, including transitioning away from fossil fuels, investing in conservation and protected areas, and working toward a more equitable and just society for people and the planet.

As we head into 2021, expect to see tension between these two competing approaches as countries grapple with how to recover from the crisis.

Price change between Jan and Dec 2020 for commodities that drive deforestation in the tropics. Data from the World Bank.
Price change between Jan and Dec 2020 for commodities that drive deforestation in the tropics. Data from the World Bank.

A second area to watch under the post COVID recovery theme is macroeconomic factors that can affect deforestation rates, like the weakening dollar, the flow of remittances into tropical countries, inflation rates, and commodity prices. The pandemic triggered a large outflow of people from cities to rural areas. This may be temporary, but if it’s not, then there are potential implications for deforestation associated with subsistence agriculture.

Transition of power in the U.S.

Donald Trump sidelined the United States when it came to collaborative global efforts to address environmental challenges, including pulling America out of the Paris Climate Agreement. His administration also undercut environmental policies from endangered species protection to management of wilderness areas, actively denied the realities of climate change, and encouraged authoritarian regimes that have targeted environmental defenders and journalists–all of which are detrimental to forest conservation efforts.

With Joe Biden promising to put climate at the center of administration policy, look for a reset from the United States. This could translate to more ambitious climate and biodiversity targets from the U.S. on the international stage, stronger environmental policies domestically, leadership in greener economic development, and more support overseas for conservation projects. But a lot rides on who controls the Senate and how willing Congress is to work with the Biden Administration on these issues.

Deforestation in Indonesia

From a policy standpoint, 2020 was a disastrous year for Indonesia’s forests. The omnibus bill that passed in October removed several key legal protections for Indonesian forests. The changes look to be a boon to the palm oil and mining industries.

Sunset over forest in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Sunset over forest in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

The government also moved forward on two initiatives that could lock in deforestation for decades to come: a “food estate” program and a biofuels mandate, which together could drive the conversion of millions of hectares of forests and peatlands to plantations. Critics say the food estate program risks a return to militarized industrial agriculture and forestry operations at the expense of local communities and the environment, while the biofuels mandate could require establishing new oil palm plantations a fifth the size of Borneo. The biodiesel mandate would create a huge source of demand for palm oil that doesn’t need to meet international standards for avoiding deforestation or human rights abuses, countering corporate zero-deforestation policies and import restrictions imposed by the European Union. Nowhere would the impacts of these programs be greater than in Papua, where vast areas of primary forest are slated to be logged and converted into plantations.


Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon topped 11,000 sq km for the 2019/2020 deforestation year, the highest level since 2008. Worse for Brazilian forests, the Bolsonaro Administration laid the groundwork for a long-term increase in deforestation with new infrastructure projects, evisceration of agencies that monitor and manage natural resources, dismantling of environmental laws, and legal and rhetorical attacks on Indigenous communities and civil society.

Annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from 2008-2020 according to INPE.
Annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from 2008-2020 according to INPE.
Aggregated short-term Amazon deforestation alerts from Brazil's National Space Research Institute (INPE) and Imazon.
Aggregated short-term Amazon deforestation alerts from Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) and Imazon.

That being said, Brazilian government data from INPE showed a slowing of deforestation in the latter part of 2020 relative to 2019 (Imazon, an independent NGO, showed the opposite). Nevertheless the deforestation and fire trend for the Amazon is ominous, as is the Bolsonaro Administration’s policy in the region.

La Niña

La Niña, the climate pattern that is the colder counterpart of El Niño, is forecast to run well into 2021.

La Niña is typically associated with wetter conditions in Indonesia and much of the Brazilian Amazon, reducing the risk of fire and drought, which could potentially mask some of the damage that’s being done by government policies in those two countries.

Destabilization of tropical forests

Scientists have been warning for years that the Amazon may be approaching a critical tipping point whereby large parts of the rainforest biome could shift to drier woodland or even savanna due to the combination of climate change, deforestation and forest degradation. In 2020 there were more indications that this transition is already underway, with the region experiencing widespread dry conditions, dry habitat species appearing in normally humid tropical rainforests, and increasing incidence of fire. Drying trends have also been observed in the Congo Basin and parts of Southeast Asia.

As noted above, La Niña is expected to continue into 2021, bringing wetter-than-normal conditions, which mean some of these effects may not be as apparent. But watch for scientists to release more research on how these trends tracked in 2019.

Government to government carbon deals

As noted in the year-end review, the governments of Switzerland and Peru signed a carbon offsetting deal under Article 6 of the Paris climate agreement in October 2020. Switzerland will get carbon credits generated by financing sustainable development projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the South American nation. Norway, which doesn’t get carbon credits from its climate and forests initiative, but nonetheless tracks avoided carbon emissions as the basis for its tropical forest funding, increased the rate it pays tropical countries to protect rainforests in November.

The Peruvian Amazon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
The Peruvian Amazon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

In 2021 watch for more of these kinds of government to government agreements as well as criticism from actors who object to carbon offsets and “market-based approaches” to forest conservation.

Assessing the impact of COVID on rainforests

With advances in remote sensing and data processing capabilities, forest monitoring was better in 2020 than it has ever been before. Nonetheless, there is still a processing delay so we don’t yet have a clear, comprehensive picture of how forest loss in 2020 compared to 2019. Anecdotally, 2020 looks like it will be a high deforestation year, but we should get better numbers in the first or second quarter of 2021.

The timeliness and quality of satellite data should get a boost in 2021 after the Norwegian government funded three satellite monitoring technology groups — Kongsberg Satellite Services, Planet, and Airbus — to provide free access to high-resolution satellite imagery of the tropics.

More companies incorporate forest-risk into decision-making

Voluntary zero deforestation commitments (specifically “No Deforestation, No Peatlands, and No Exploitation” policies) took off in the 2010s, but analysis published in 2020 by ZSL indicated that companies are far behind on implementing what they promised. So in 2021 we’ll see a shift from voluntary efforts to government mandated compliance.

We saw the groundwork for such developments laid in 2020. The U.K. government put forth a law that would make it illegal for large companies operating in the country to use commodities produced from land that was illegally deforested, while France, which pledged in 2019 to stop “deforestation imports” by 2030, continued to move forward on its National Strategy to Combat Imported Deforestation, announcing it aimed to stop importing soy from Brazil. In a November referendum, voters in Switzerland narrowly rejected the Responsible Business Initiative, which would have held Swiss businesses — think Nestlé or Glencore — financially and legally liable for human rights violations or environmental damage wherever it occurs.

Even the Trump Administration had started to look at issues related to forest risk commodities. On December 30, 2020, U.S. Customs and Border Protection started detaining palm oil products produced by Malaysia palm oil giant Sime Darby due to allegations of forced labor on its plantations.

Rainforest mantis in Suriname. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Rainforest mantis in Suriname. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

This push however may cause friction with trade partners. Last year a row arose between French president Emmanuel Macron and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro over deforestation and fires in the Amazon. And Malaysia and Indonesia have been furiously lobbying the E.U. in recent years to allow biodiesel derived from palm oil count toward renewable fuel standards. Both Malaysia and Indonesia are now working to overcome the loss of that market by scaling up national biofuel mandates, which are expected to become a huge source of new demand for palm oil that need not meet corporate ZDPE commitments or European government standards.

Environmental defenders under threat

2020 was a particularly ugly year for environmental defenders, hundreds of whom were threatened and killed in countries around the world. There are few indications that the situation is likely to improve in 2021 given the degree to which the pandemic has strengthened the resolve and capacity of authoritarian regimes and repressive governments to crack down on dissent. However, 11 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have now signed the Escazú Agreement, which means the treaty that links environmental protection to human rights in the region will enter into force in early 2021.

Another issue to watch in 2021 is whether the movement to address systemic social injustice consolidates its 2020 gains or fades in the public’s attention. The protests that erupted in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in the United States catalyzed movements around the world from New Guinea to the Amazon, but there’s no certainty that the momentum can overcome the repressive response in many countries or the resurgence of the pandemic. Progress may be more resilient within conservation organizations, where there is now much greater awareness around systemic racism, abusive power dynamics, and colonial legacy than a year ago.

International policy meetings back on track?

The pandemic caused the postponement of the bulk of the agenda-setting climate and biodiversity meetings scheduled to occur in 2020. We now live in a Zoom world, but depending on vaccine rollouts progress, some of these meetings may occur in-person in 2021.

Shades of REDD+:
Corresponding Adjustments for Voluntary Markets – Seriously?

Updated on 25 January 2021 to clarify language on the accounting of reductions.

21 December 2020 | In recent months, a chorus of ever-louder voices have argued that cross-border voluntary carbon market transactions must come with “corresponding adjustments” applied to national GHG accounting or risk obscuring progress in combating climate change. Such adjustments, the argument goes, are essential to ensuring the integrity of voluntary carbon markets. Advocates of corresponding adjustments see the voluntary market as undermining mitigation efforts.

I argue that the opposite is true.

Voluntary carbon markets: what, when, why

Voluntary carbon markets channel the money of corporations, civil society organizations, and individuals that want to reduce greenhouse (GHG) emissions into mitigation projects and programs. Investors, as well as project proponents, can be private or public, and they can be located in the same country or in different countries.

As indicated by the name, the nature of these transactions is voluntary, i.e. not mandated or accounted for under any regulatory or compliance system. Corporate engagement may be strategic — to earn a reputation as a good corporate citizen or linked to sustainability commitments. It may be greenwashing or driven by serious concern, but regardless of the motivation and credibility, it is not part of any effort to comply with mandatory GHG goals. Voluntary markets, as long as they operate within the limits of the law, do not concern government authorities.

Generally, voluntary carbon markets fill a gap where regulatory action is insufficient or absent.

Corresponding adjustments: what, when, why

It’s a different story when countries are using cross-border carbon markets to finance deeper emission reductions. Under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, countries and authorized entities can also transfer emission reductions, in which case they’re referred to as “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” (ITMOs). When such transactions occur, countries make “corresponding adjustments” to their national accounting against their climate target (see paragraph 36 of Decision 1/CP.21).  The country where the mitigation took place subtracts the emission reduction from its accounting, while the acquiring country adds the emission reduction to its GHG accounting.

Corresponding adjustments are a tool designed to promote the integrity of emissions accounting under the Paris Agreement. They are intended to prevent countries from counting any given emission reduction more than once towards Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs, or country climate targets). Avoiding this “double counting” ensures the integrity of carbon accounting at the international level, helping the world understand how much progress is being made towards achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goals of 1.5C and 2C.

The arguments in favor of corresponding adjustments for voluntary carbon markets

Those in favor of requiring corresponding adjustments for voluntary market transactions worry that the voluntary carbon market will let countries off the hook for setting strong policy or reduce the pressure created by NDCs to lower emissions in host countries.  Therefore, they argue that voluntary transactions should be treated as de-facto ITMOs under Article 6 of the Agreement. This would require voluntary transactions to be accounted for under the NDC where the buyer is located, even if that country isn’t seeking such credit.

According to this argument, if a German auto company wants to offset its fossil-fuel emissions by financing a conservation project in Zambia, then the Zambian government should have to subtract the reductions from its national NDC. The reason, advocates argue, is that credits not backed by a corresponding adjustment would result in double-counting or the double-claiming of emission reductions.

Those in the pro-corresponding adjustment camp argue that corporates should not be allowed to make a carbon-neutrality claim using emission reductions counted by a country towards its Paris target. This argument hinges on the belief that it’s unacceptable that “the buyer de facto finances the host country’s efforts towards meeting its NDC”. There is a fear that, without corresponding adjustments, and if “the host country does not increase its own target as a result of the sale of the credit, then overall emissions increase, because no extra abatement has taken place”.

These arguments simply don’t hold up.

And why these arguments are so unconvincing

Let’s take the last argument first. It starts with the false assumption that there is something shameful about having voluntary investors finance a country’s efforts to achieve its NDC. There isn’t. In fact, the opposite is true.

Considering that most carbon buyers and investors come from rich, developed countries, there is a strong argument for such carbon buyers to support the NDCs of developing countries. The principles of equity and common-but-differentiated responsibilities – cornerstone principles of the international climate regime – provide powerful arguments against corresponding adjustments for voluntary transactions. It cannot be acceptable that developed countries take advantage of voluntary corporate action to achieve their NDCs without any adjustments, but that developing countries should forgo the fruits of voluntary action.

To illustrate the point, let’s go back to our example: The auto company implements a climate pledge, and it begins by retooling its factory in Germany to reduce emissions voluntarily. In this case, Germany can enter the emission reductions in its GHG accounting, and no one will claim the automaker let Germany off the hook when it comes to climate ambition.

But if the carmaker compensates for remaining emissions by investing in a project in Zambia, then the expectation is that either Zambia undertakes a corresponding adjustment or increases the ambition of its NDC. Interestingly, it is not exactly clear whether the emission reductions would involve a bilateral transfer between Germany and Zambia or just the writing off of GHG reductions by Zambia. If Zambia agrees to execute a corresponding adjustment in a bilateral transfer, Germany could even double-dip in the carmaker’s voluntary action and count the transferred emission reduction against its NDC (there are currently no rules that would prohibit this). If there is no bilateral agreement backing the corresponding adjustment, the emission reductions used by the car company risk disappearing altogether from the Paris Agreement’s reporting and accounting.

In either case, while Germany is allowed to harvest the benefits of voluntary action, Zambia is not. Take a moment and get the taste of this.

Correspondingly perverse incentives

Approaching this issue from another angle: The Paris Agreement is based on voluntary NDCs and the notion that the positive experience of NDC compliance would lead to increasingly ambitious pledges. Success and breakthroughs would trigger a ratcheting up of ambition. In this vein, voluntary carbon markets should pride themselves in supporting and accelerating NDC compliance, particularly where investment happens in developing or least developed countries. By accelerating compliance, countries become more confident that they can meet climate goals and increase ambition in the next NDC cycle.

Skeptics claim that voluntary carbon markets would delay or deter government action, but there is no evidence that private sector action would displace public sector action. History tells us that NDCs and international goals need every extra push towards compliance. From the US refusal to ratify and Canada’s exit from the Kyoto Protocol, the Millennium Development Goals, ODA, and climate finance targets to the New York Declaration on Forests, there is a rich history of countries failing to meet global pledges or goals.

We also have little evidence that public policy would be held back by voluntary carbon market activities. Quite the contrary. Voluntary markets invest in early projects, test a technology, make it market-ready. The additionality requirement of carbon market transactions also means that voluntary carbon market projects populate niches that government regulation has not yet reached.

The accounting argument remains porous

And finally, the accounting argument. If voluntary carbon markets run parallel and ‘unseen’ to the Paris Agreement, they have no impact on Paris Agreement accounting. Emission reductions will appear in the GHG inventories of host countries (e.g. Zambia), and nowhere else. But let’s assume host countries agreed to make corresponding adjustments for voluntary carbon market projects. This would require an international agreement to account for various forms of GHG reductions, and it would require an understanding of how different segments of the voluntary carbon market operate. Few countries will have the capacity to make corresponding adjustments in the next years. Corresponding adjustments require legal approval of voluntary carbon market projects, a link between monitoring and accounting, robust transaction GHG registries, and an agreement between voluntary carbon market standards and national GHG registries. Most developing countries lack the infrastructure and institutions to establish the architecture to undertake corresponding adjustments. This means corresponding adjustments may not be possible for most countries in the foreseeable future.

To ensure robust accounting countries should invest in national GHG monitoring and tracking to have a good understanding of the GHG emissions in their country. Carbon markets also help to close data gaps and pilot monitoring approaches.

Finally, double claiming and net-zero carbon targets of corporates. As long as double claiming does not lead to double counting, I would consider it a problem of the second or third order. Companies claim a lot (how many ‘World’s best beer’ have we consumed already?). But good, let’s dive into that last argument: To avoid any double claiming, carbon neutrality would have to be backed by ‘fresh’ emission reductions that are not claimed by any government. All governments, whether representing developed or developing countries, would be responsible to meet their NDCs through government action and regulation. Any voluntary corporate action would come on top of this. So, in the previous example, the German government would need to subtract out all the German automaker’s emission reductions/removals not driven by regulation, whether occurring within the company’s Scope 1, 2, or 3 boundaries or if coming from a domestic offset project. Corporate voluntary GHG benefits should be subject to ‘neutrality’ reporting and set-aside accounts wherever emission reductions are achieved – through corporate direct mitigation action or offset projects. This would be clean and pure. It would also be fair, albeit unlikely to be embraced by developed countries, which currently get to count domestic voluntary corporate action in their NDCs. Alternatively, companies could clarify that their commitments support NDCs of their home and offset supplying countries. Corporates could also express confidence that their efforts result in more ambition in the next cycle of NDCs.

Accelerating not putting brakes on action

Let me suggest that we change the topic of our discussion. Let’s put all our energies towards defining and implementing ambitious mitigation actions. We don’t have time to waste. All hands on deck for climate action. Voluntary carbon markets play an important role in unleashing mitigation action. They can generate GHG reductions while governments put in place climate policies. corresponding adjustments have no obvious benefits in driving ambition, but they create significant accounting and bureaucratic barriers for urgent mitigation action. Any requirement that would demand countries to undertake corresponding adjustments for voluntary transactions would discriminate against developing countries that are unable to make the required adjustment, and these countries would benefit most from voluntary private engagement.

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A Tale of Two Transactions: the Corresponding Adjustments Story

This article is adapted from a story that first appeared on the Emissierechten blog. It is part of an ongoing effort to share opinions from thought leaders on a diverse range of issues. The views are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of Forest Trends or Ecosystem Marketplace.

18 December 2020 | The nation of Switzerland and the oil company Total, of France, are two completely different entities. One is a nation with thousands of companies and millions of people in it, while the other is a private company with operations in scores of countries. Both, however, have one thing in common: each has committed to slashing its net greenhouse gas emissions.

Switzerland aims to cut the combined emissions of all its factories, cars, and cows in half by 2030 and to slash them to zero by 2050 – right in line with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says all countries must do if we’re to meet the Paris Agreement’s aim of limiting global warming to an average of 1.5°C (3.7°F) above preindustrial levels. The country, however, says it can only reduce by 37.5 percent in the next ten years using existing technologies, so it will get to zero by imposing a cap on emissions and purchasing international carbon offsets that finance reductions in other countries for another 12.5 percent. For now, the country is executing these transactions itself, but it may make it possible for large emitters to do so themselves.

Total aims to offer net-zero LNG to customers who want it as soon as it can, no matter where they live. Total argues LNG has lower emissions than oil, but the technology isn’t yet advanced enough to offer emission-free LNG around the world. So it, too, is using carbon offsets.

Switzerland is an example of the “governmental CO2 market”: the government is purchasing emission reductions, technically termed “Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes ” (ITMOs), to help meet its national obligation under the Paris Agreement. ITMOs are tradable reductions beyond reductions that the country selling them needs for its own Paris commitments (“NDCs,” for “Nationally-Determined Contributions”). Accordingly, the ITMOs will be transferred out of the selling country, where the reductions actually take place, and into Switzerland’s national greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory. This is termed a “corresponding adjustment” under the Paris Agreement.

Total is an example of the “voluntary carbon offset market”: the company is buying offsets to create a product that it can market as “climate neutral” rather than to meet a legal requirement. It is buying the offsets from a private company in one country to create a climate-neutral product that will be sold in another country, but the emission reductions will be credited to the GHG inventory of the country where the reductions take place. Total is, in a sense helping another country reduce its GHG emissions, but its only real claim is to having a climate-neutral product. As a result, there is no need for a corresponding adjustment – or shouldn’t be.

Here’s a deep dive into both of the above scenarios.

Switzerland and Peru Agree on Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes (ITMOs)

In mid-October, Switzerland and Peru agreed to work together to increase both countries’ climate ambition. Switzerland, as we saw above believes it can reduce emissions 37.5 percent in the next 10 years, but can achieve a net reduction of 50 percent by using the global CO2 market to finance reductions abroad. According to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, a country may use the surplus CO2 reduction of another country to help achieve its goal through so-called “Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes” (ITMOs). Countries indicate in their climate plan which reductions they definitely want to achieve: “unconditional”; and which can only achieve with international support: “conditional”. Peru’s “unconditional” CO2 target is a 20 percent reduction from “business as usual” (approximately 14 percent above 1990 level). Peru indicates that it can reduce 10 percent more under the “condition” of “carbon financing”.

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Minister of the Environment of Peru, Kirla Echegaray and the Ambassador of Switzerland to Peru Markus-Alexander Antonietti.

The countries have different economies and different resources. Specifically, Peru has leeway to reduce more with regard to forest protection and renewable energy, while Switzerland has little in the way of unoccupied land that can serve this purpose. So Switzerland has invested €20 million in the Tuku Wasi program, among other things. The program reduces emissions in Peru by distributing efficient cooking appliances, which means that less wood is used and less deforestation takes place. Peru is also negotiating similar CO2 agreements for the waste sector with Scandinavian countries. One part of the extra reductions counts towards the Peruvian CO2 target; the other part for the Swiss (see figure below).

They agree that the reductions transferred to Switzerland (ITMOs) will not be counted twice. That is entirely in accordance with article 6.2 of the Paris Agreement. This means that Peru will deduct the reductions that it transfers to Switzerland from its own reporting via a corresponding adjustment. In doing so, they anticipated implementation rules that will be agreed at the Climate Summit in Glasgow at the end of 2021 or the next Summit. New Zealand Environment Minister James Shaw told Carbon Pulse in November that Art 6 rules can even emerge earlier from these kinds of deals rather than from the UN talks themselves. Peru just launched an emissions reduction registry at IHS Markit to help track activities and the future transfer of ITMOs.

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Climate-Neutral LNG

Total announced that it will supply their “First Carbon Neutral LNG Cargo” to China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) in Dapeng. The LNG comes from a production location in Australia. CNOOC thus sells CO2-neutral gas to domestic customers. The user remains responsible for the CO2 emissions from the use of the gas. Earlier this year, CNOOC already bought climate-neutral LNG from Shell.

The CO2 emissions from production and transport are offset by two CO2 reduction projects:

The reductions for wind energy and forest protection help meet the CO2 targets in China and Zimbabwe respectively. Total does not reduce the CO2 emissions with this of its own installations in Australia. These investments are on top of that. Large CDM wind projects like the above are no longer used by most compensation providers because these are already commercial and profitable. Moreover, the Kyoto Protocol, in which the CDM is regulated, will end this year and the CDM will therefore also expire this year. REDD projects and cookstoves projects, such as in Peru, are widely used in the voluntary CO2 market.

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The CO2 market will play a role in achieving the Paris Agreement

According to a study by Climate Focus, ten countries, including Canada, Japan and Chile and a number of international organizations, such as the World Bank, EBRD and Nefco are engaged in such international CO2 pilots.

Climate Focus: overview of CO2-pilots

These examples illustrate how two countries can achieve more ambitious CO2 targets using the CO2 market and international transfer of carbon credits. And companies that voluntarily offset their CO2 emissions through international CO2 projects contribute to achieving their CO2 target in those countries. These companies do this out of responsibility for their climate impact or because they want to sell climate-neutral projects or services. Companies that agree on the CO2 plans within the framework of the Science Based Targets may also use offsets in addition to their own reductions.

Future developments: EU Climate Law and EU ETS

In the future, the scope of CO2 obligations will increase and more sectors and companies will receive a CO2 tax from their government or fall under emissions trading. As a result, the reductions that are realized in another country will have to be transferred to contribute to the country in which that company is located (CA).

European Member States may in the future also make use of this opportunity. In November, Switzerland signed its second ITMO agreement with Ghana, and more are planned.  Sweden is preparing CO2 deals with Ethiopia, Nepal, Cambodia. German Secretary of State for the Environment, Jochen Flasbarth, said at a meeting last month that Article 6 reductions could be on top of the EU’s 55 percent reduction. In the European Parliament, an amendment proposal for this from the European People’s Party has not yet achieved a majority. But the examples mentioned certainly deserve to be followed. The EU Council did agree on the European Climate Law again in December and said it would just follow international progress. Also, this approach can become part of the ETS Reviews that will be discussed Spring 2021.

How Biden Can Ensure Every Federal Agency Is Fighting Climate Change

15 December 2020 | President-elect Joe Biden has an unprecedented opportunity to walk the U.S.—and perhaps the world—back from the brink on climate change. After four years of harmful deregulation, his work is cut out for him.

But to truly address climate change will require more than simply repealing President Donald Trump’s rollbacks and maybe strengthening a few rules on power plant emissions before calling it a day. Because climate change is an everything problem, the entire and considerable weight of the federal government will need to be thrown into addressing it. Like rowing competition, the race to address climate change can only be won if everyone is pulling in the same direction.

This “all of government” response to the crisis at hand is the only way to ensure a shot at keeping the globe from heating up more than the 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) goal outlined in the Paris Agreement, to say nothing of the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target outlined in a landmark United Nations report. Over the next four years, Biden will have to center climate change at every agency, from the obvious ones like the Environmental Protection Agency to others like the Department of Education and Treasury.

Earther has pulled together ideas and actions federal agencies can take to address climate change, based on conversations with dozens of experts who know the federal government’s levers of power and how to pull them so that they’re all geared to lower emissions. The ideas below are not exhaustive nor do they include solutions that can be applied at all agencies such as installing climate advocates at all levels, using procurement to electrify the government vehicle fleet, and diversifying the workforce so that new problem solvers are welcomed into the fold. But they do represent some of the best ones out there for how to get the ship turned quickly.

But importantly, the visions aren’t merely technocratic. The climate crisis is the result of an unjust system of environmental destruction and racial inequality and violence. Sure, President-elect Biden could issue an executive order to close all coal plants but without fostering a just transition for workers or putting in place plans to remediate pollution in communities, we’ll end up with the same crappy world with slightly cleaner air. Fighting climate change requires tearing down systems of oppression and allowing communities to chart their own course in the clean energy. It requires healing the scars left by more than a century of extractive capitalism. It requires reparations for people and the land.

“We all fight for Mother Earth, and right now she is ill and we have to find a way to make her healthy in order for us to be healthy,” Ann Marie Chischilly, the executive director of Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University, said. “This is [about] our viewpoint for seven generations to come and making decisions at that level of thinking that far out. You have to really think holistically.”

Below is an agency-by-agency along with other facets of the executive branch breakdown of how to reimagine the federal government for the climate change action era. If you know Joe Biden, please share these ideas with him. (And if you are, in fact, Joe Biden, please read this over carefully. Also hey.)

Department of Agriculture

Agriculture is responsible for some 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it a major contributor to the climate crisis. At the same time, farm and ranch workers have been experiencing losses due to climate-fueled disasters like California’s wildfires and the recent derecho in Iowa. A climate-focused USDA could tackle both sides of the coin.

The USDA presides over farming and forestry, both of which could be important avenues for greenhouse gas sequestration. In his Plan for Rural America, Biden promised to help farmers make money by planting crops that pull carbon out of the air. John Ikerd, a professor emeritus of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, said this is a good idea, but must be enacted carefully.

“If you want just to maximize carbon sequestration, you’re probably going to be using heavy applications of fertilizers and pesticides that would end up leaching into groundwater,” he said. “You could have nitrate problems which could be a major problem in drinking water. So you might deal with a carbon problem to some extent, but you might make the pollution problem worse.”

This pollution could leave the U.S. with degraded soils, which could lead to poor plant growth and thereby reduce sequestration capabilities. Instead of tackling each issue alone, Ickert proposes a more holistic approach. In a 2020 report for Data for Progress, he and a half dozen others laid out a plan to financially incentivize carbon sequestration, but with many additional stipulations to protect the planet and workers.

“That would include reduced tillage, reduced use of pesticides, diverse rotations—no more monoculture,” Mackenzie Feldman, a food and sustainability fellow, Data For Progress and the report’s lead author, said.

This would also help farmers to get out of debt. Farm debt is now at a level last seen in 1980, which marked the dawn of a historic crisis in the industry.

The Forest Service, which falls in the USDA’s domain, could also be an important source of climate action. The agency oversees 193 million acres of land, equivalent to the state of Texas. Trump proposed a dumb program to plant a trillion trees, but more helpful would be expanding the department’s powers to protect existing forests from insects, diseases, and invasive species. Biden could also pour more resources into the agency’s important climate adaptation efforts to boost resilience to forest fires and help build food security, and climate science efforts, too.

Equally important is the department’s ability to boost equity. Black farmers received just 0.80% of the USDA’s loans between 2009 and 2016, and the problem goes back much farther than that.

“In 1910, one in seven farmers were African American, and over the next century, 98% of black farmers were dispossessed,” Feldman said.

Boosting these small farms could also be a climate solution, since small farmers are by-and-large more environmentally friendly than their huge, industrialized counterparts.

“The main thing is that the USDA should take on all these problems, and recognize that they’re all interrelated,” Ickert said.

Department of Commerce

At the root, DOC is largely the Department of Data and Information. And among its most prized data sources is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It has what NOAA stans affectionately refer to as a “wet” side and “dry” side, denoting its focus on sea and land (tbd on where the atmosphere fits). That trove of data can help the U.S. prepare for the coming climate crisis and ensure DOC lives up to its mission to “create the conditions for economic growth and opportunity.”

Under Trump, NOAA has been overrun with climate deniers and skeptics. Getting them out of NOAA is step one for the Biden administration. The Climate 21 Project, a group of experts who released a series of memos on climate and governance, suggested the Biden’s NOAA create a Climate Council to coordinate efforts across the wet and dry sides. In addition to collecting data, NOAA issues life-saving forecasts (the National Weather Service), helps manage waterways (National Ocean Service), and conducts science research from the deep sea to space. Ensuring all those moving parts address climate change is a tall task, but crucial to make sure the agency is pulling in the same direction. The best thing about a Climate Council as opposed to, say, forming a new division within NOAA, is it could be implemented without Congressional approval.

“They could do it right away and that would be a way for them to immediately encourage that collaboration across line offices,” Jean Flemma, director of the Ocean Defense Initiative and a Climate 21 author, said.

Because NOAA’s mission is to help keep the economy churning, the agency could also revisit its science priorities to focus on near-term climate change and forecasts. A community looking to build a boat launch, for example, may want climate projections for the next decade, not the next century. To do that type of work requires scientists and more computing power.

“The weather could be predicted really well 10 days out, and the climate can be predicted really well on the order of 50 years out,” Miriam Goldstein, an ocean policy expert at the Center for American Progress and report author, said. “But we don’t have a lot in the five to 10 year timescale.”

NOAA also does tons of work on the ground, including a program called Sea Grant that partners with local universities. Climate could again take center stage there and new projections like the ones Goldstein suggested could be disseminated through the program offices to help communities plan and restore coastal ecosystems. The latter is particularly important due to sea level rise and the protection restoration can afford as well as the fact that certain ecosystems, such as mangroves, can store carbon.

So yes, it’s about data. But it’s also about ensuring that data ends up in the hands of decision makers or is used to directly ensure people are protected. Oh, and also for the love of all things holy, no more Sharpiegates.

Department of Defense

The DOD is at once a big driver of climate change and affected by it. The Pentagon is the largest consumer of fossil fuels in the federal government, using more than the entire countries of Sweden and Denmark. It’s also the largest institutional greenhouse gas polluter in the world.

Under Biden, there are limitless possibilities to clean up the military’s carbon footprint while also insulating its bases from climate change and improving national security. For instance, as the policy organization Climate and Security Advisory Group has suggested, the administration could charge its security advisors with making plans for climate security in the world’s most vulnerable regions domestically and abroad, helping those areas to handle climate stressors and deploy clean energy to preserve safety. It’s important that this is not simply used to promote American-made clean power, but that it promotes the use of the best-available technology.

The Pentagon could also continue to research which of its bases are most vulnerable to the impacts of the changing climate like wildfires and droughts, and ensure they are ready to weather those disasters. It also has a chance to remediate land it has poisoned. Among hundreds of examples are Vieques, Puerto Rico where decades of Navy chemical pollution have hugely increased locals’ risk of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and working to investigate and eliminate the horrific impacts of the depleted uranium that troops used in Iraq.

When resources are set aside to carry out these projects, the administration should also ensure that those projects are seen through. This summer, the Pentagon received $1 billion from the nation’s covid-19 stimulus bill to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus,” but it diverted the majority of those funds to defense contractors to produce military items such as parts for jet engines and armor. If funds are obtained for green projects, the administration should ensure that that’s how they’re used.

That doesn’t address the underlying issue of its use in destabilizing entire countries and regions. So while its role is purportedly meant to keep Americans safe, in practice, DOD perpetuates endless wars and contributes to the existential threat of climate change through its copious fossil fuel use, both of which put people at risk. Cutting the Pentagon budget could save countless lives by limiting both. But this doesn’t mean the government should spend less overall. Biden could reappropriate the funds for programs that reduce emissions and meaningfully make the world safer.

“Pentagon funding doesn’t keep people on the Gulf Coast safe from hurricanes, or people in California safe from wildfires,” Basav Sen, climate justice project director at the Institute for Policy Studies. “But investing in renewable energy, public transportation, energy efficient buildings, and ecological agriculture does help keep people safe. So if the goal really is to protect people from actual danger, we should be funding climate protection, not the Pentagon.”

An Institute for Policy Studies brief recommends starting by slashing $350 billion from the Pentagon budget, which is a little under half. That would still leave the U.S. with the largest military budget in the world. In addition, the brief includes a call to close hundreds of bases outside U.S. borders, many of which have leached dangerous pollutants into air and drinking water.

With the budget the department has left, the new administration should ensure that no wars are being waged to protect fossil fuel access. Since 1973, between one quarter and one half of all U.S. wars have been waged at least in part for oil. Instead, armed forces should be deployed to clean up the dirty legacy of war.

Department of Education

Though its name is education, the role of the department in setting the education agenda is fairly limited. It can offer awards to educators for bringing climate into their classroom, providing workshops or conferences for teachers focused on climate, and expand programs like Green Ribbon Schools, which it awards to schools and districts for sustainable operations. It could also help collect and ensure access to resources for K-12 teachers about climate change from agencies like NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, resources the Trump administration tried to memory-hole.

But ultimately, states set their own educational standards. So a Biden DOE isn’t going to be mandating climate in the curriculum anytime soon. Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, said that perhaps the agency’s biggest role can be having a secretary who is vocal about climate change’s rightful role in the classroom, giving teachers the courage to approach it. At the end of the day, the position is a bullhorn to schools and educators across all levels. Having a secretary using it to shout a climate message might be the best tool in the department’s toolbox.

Department of Energy

The DOE oversees U.S. electricity use, which is responsible for 26.9 percent of the nation’s total carbon emissions. When it comes to the future of the climate, the agency has one of the most important roles in the executive branch.

A key responsibility of the DOE is setting efficiency standards for appliances. Under the Trump administration, the agency failed to update dozens of these regulations when they were overdue, and even eased requirements for some appliances. This meant the U.S. emitted tens of millions more tons of carbon than it would have under stricter rules.

The next administration could undo that damage and go even further to cut greenhouse gas pollution. If it chooses to, a recent report from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy shows Biden’s DOE could cut the nation’s carbon emissions by up to 2.9 billion metric tons through 2030—the equivalent to the pollution from 25 coal-fired power plants—by making stricter standards for 47 different products, including water heaters, clothes dryers, and refrigerators. These would also allow Americans to save on their energy bills as well.

While these standards can make a huge difference for carbon pollution, DOE doesn’t have the power to take on greenhouse gas emissions in their standards directly. It couldn’t, for instance, mandate a cap on the greenhouse gas emissions generated by a dishwasher.

“That’s an authority that would have to be codified in law, and that would require Congress,” Jake Higdon, a senior analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund and fellow at Data for Progress, said. It can, however, encourage manufacturers and customers to go beyond its standards to reduce energy use (and, indirectly, emissions) with its voluntary certification programs, like EnergyStar. It can also ensure that grants and loan programs are going to deployment of low and zero emissions technologies, like the top performers in those programs.

Those grant and loan programs could also be used to prioritize energy justice. For instance, the agency could make an effort to fund community-owned solar projects or renewable-powered microgrids, which are resilient to power outages in the electricity grid.

“Those are initiatives that can help promote equitable access to energy,” Higdon said. “And it could focus on grantmaking in frontline communities…making sure these technologies are going to the communities that have historically borne the brunt of pollution.”

The same goes for the agency’s clean electricity deployment programs, which exist but are very limited in their scope and funding. “Right now, there’s the Weatherization Assistance Program and the State Energy Program,” Higdon said. With Congressional approval, both could be expanded and better resourced to ensure more Americans have access to carbon-free power.

The DOE is also responsible for important research operations, and by hiring climate-focused staff, it could use those programs to further research into clean energy. That includes not only things like better wind and solar energy, but also technologies that have received less focus.

“The DOE hasn’t done as much work outside of the power sector, but efficiency standards can be really useful for reducing pollution and saving energy costs in, say, manufacturing and commercial building sectors,” Higdon said. “There, energy use costs a lot of money and it generates a big portion of those industries’ emissions. Appliances like big industrial boilers and HVAC systems for commercial buildings are really large, and they last a really long time, and right now they’re super expensive and polluting.”

The next generation of these technologies could be cheaper and less polluting, as well as kinder to the climate.

Department of Health and Human Services

The climate crisis and environmental degradation are top risks to human health. Amid unchecked global warming, an August study found that heat waves could kill as many people as all infectious diseases combined. Floods create public health emergencies, too, from sewage overflows to chemical leaks. To act on these threats, the first thing the HHS should do is call out the problem.

“The next HHS Secretary should declare climate change a public health emergency on Day 1 of the Biden Administration,” Ezra Silk, co-founder of The Climate Mobilization, said. “This declaration will empower the department to tap the Public Health Emergency Fund and launch a national public education campaign about the acute health risks of climate change.”

That campaign, Silk said, should also teach Americans about the less obvious public health dangers of environmental degradation, such as the ways it can bring forth pandemics. Covid-19, for instance, is a zoonotic disease, meaning it was transmitted to people from animals. Deforestation, factory farming, and other forms of animal exploitation put us at risk for more public health crises of this kind.

Beyond education, the HHS could allocate resources specifically for climate resilience. Renee Salas, a Harvard Medical School clinical instructor focused on the intersection of climate and health, said it could do so by creating a separate subagency.

“This office could work to advance national surveillance for climate-related health risks, bolster resiliency in our healthcare infrastructure and supply chains, among other things,” she said.

Department of Homeland Security

While the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks have focused around EPA and DOI, the administration’s sheer malevolence has been front and center at DHS. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are housed under DHS and have committed a slew of human rights and environmental abuses. The department is also home to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which also dealt with fraud and morale issues over the past four years (though the latter predates Trump).

The Biden administration will have so much work to do to fix an agency Frankensteined together in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, let alone make it an agency to address climate change. But because of the scope of its work, DHS could be radically overhauled in ways that would protect the U.S. and those seeking refuge here in an increasingly upended world.

One of the first places to physically start the work is on the U.S.-Mexico border. There, the Trump administration has steamrolled environmental regulations to build its border wall. DHS should halt all construction, and at the bare minimum work with public lands agencies to do a real environmental impact assessment in line with bedrock laws on the damage already done. But the reality is it should go much further. The wall is a racist abomination that’s also cut through fragile desert landscapes, putting more stress on creatures that live there. As the climate crisis worsens, the borderlands need to be open to give those species a shot at survival.

“We’ll have to do what most American politicians haven’t done or American bureaucrats even and that’s view the borderlands and as an interconnected, interdependent bioregion and manage these incredible resources with that in mind,” Laiken Jordahl, a borderlands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “My dream is to help establish an international peace park at Organ Pipe with El Pinacate across the border in Mexico.”

Then there’s the human side of DHS. Climate change-fueled droughts in Syria and Central America have already led to mass migrations, and a growing body of research shows how it could exacerbate conflict and lead to more asylum seekers. Despite this, climate migrants lack protections. The Biden administration could accommodate those forced from their homes by the climate crisis through a number of channels, including temporary protected status. That designation was used to allow migrants from El Salvador, Haiti, and elsewhere to resettle in the U.S. following disasters such as earthquakes or political unrest. Using it to help climate migrants is a fix Biden’s DHS could use to humanely help those in need after hurricanes, drought, fires, or other disasters supercharged by climate change. A Center for Strategic and International Studies brief also includes a roadmap on how DHS could create a resettlement program specific for climate refugees.

Then there’s FEMA. The agency is key for responding to increasing frequent and damaging weather as well as preparing the nation for them. Samantha Montano, an emergency management researcher at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said the agency needs to do is open up the hood and see where things stand after four years of Trump. But next comes getting a leader who gets the link between climate, disasters, and recovery, and isn’t afraid to set the agenda, something that just hasn’t happened to-date there.

“The number one most important thing is choosing somebody who leads FEMA who not only understands climate change, but is really vocal and up front,” Montano added.

While there’s no shortage of things a new administrator could do from overhauling the National Flood Insurance Program to ensuring rebuilding after disasters reflects Biden’s “build back better” principle rather than, as it currently does, build what was there before. But one of the biggest things FEMA could do is both model how to fit climate projections into disaster planning at the federal level for state and local agencies and use funding to compel those agencies to follow suit.

“If FEMA attaches having a climate adaption plan to your state getting FEMA funding for your next disaster, they’re going to do it,” Montano said. “You need somebody who is a visionary who understands what emergency management could be [to] motivate people not only at FEMA but the profession as a whole.”

Department of Housing and Urban Development

We urgently need to decarbonize the U.S. buildings sector, which consumes 39% of the nation’s energy. More than half of that is tied to residential buildings. At the same time, the climate crisis is making it all the more urgent to ensure all people have access to homes that protect them from increased heat, cold, rain, and other forms of extreme weather. HUD could help get us there.

Low-income housing needs particular attention. Right now, nearly half a million government-subsidized households are located in flood plains, and when floods destroy buildings, affordable units are less likely to get rebuilt. Poorer people are also far more likely to reside in areas that are heat islands—places where concrete and tall buildings create higher temperatures—and in poorly insulated homes, which is an issue in the extreme cold, too. This means these homes rely more on heating and cooling technology to maintain comfort, too, which results in higher energy bills and creates more indoor pollution from air conditioners, which can screw up air quality and also warm the climate. HUD could begin to take all of this on by changing its core housing mandates, which dictate standards for residences.

“Homes that do not protect seniors from the adverse health impacts of high-heat events, that do not ensure high indoor environmental quality (thermal comfort, air quality, pests, etc.), or that don’t enable residents to shelter safely in their homes during extreme weather can no longer be called ‘quality homes,’” Bomee Jung, former vice president of energy and sustainability at New York City’s Housing Authority, wrote in a memo calling for a HUD chief climate officer. From there, the agency could implement new climate-focused standards across all of its projects.

For instance, the Department of Energy has a buildings certification for Zero-Energy Ready Homes, which applies to buildings that are “so energy efficient, that a renewable energy system can offset all or most of its annual energy consumption.” That label is the most aggressive emissions targeting program in existence, but the federal government is now working on an even stronger certification for Zero-Carbon Ready Homes. Those will apply to buildings that have the lowest possible greenhouse gas impact and have offsets in place for any necessary emissions, such as electricity or gas use in areas that don’t have an available renewable-powered grid. They’ll also be ready to be transitioned to all renewable energy when the technology is put into place.

“One of the things that [HUD] has to do is to say, ‘we’re just going to take the most aggressive labeling program for residential homes, and we’re going to mandate for all of our new construction projects,’” Jung, speaking on her own behalf, said. “And we have a very well established base of technical capacity, pretty much throughout the country. We’re ready to build homes [sustainably] right now.”

Mandating that federal contractors meet these aggressive targets also encourages private companies to work toward meeting them, so that they can be eligible to work with HUD. It also allows them flexibility to work within their states’ climate targets, since some states are decarbonizing their grids faster than others.

The department also oversees multi-billion dollar grantmaking and financing programs, which could also be used to push forth sustainable building.

“Even without new funding from Congress, HUD has the potential to drive major new investments in climate justice in nearly every community in the U.S,” Billy Fleming, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s McHarg Center, said. “Its various grant and finance programs—especially those in the Office of Community Planning and Development—could come with new strings that guarantee a larger proportion of its $32 billion budget goes toward building low-carbon working-class and public housing communities.”

That could include the agency’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program, which provides grants each year for states and municipalities to develop residential areas. Fleming said that HUD could require that all recipients of CDBG funding develop policies to reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution from the buildings sector and incorporate plans to adapt to extreme heat, sea level rise, and other threats.

To ensure that the department meets all of these goals, Jung said it should hire a climate officer to work in the secretary’s office. That person could liaise with other agencies to ensure it is prepared for coming climate policies, such as efficiency standards for appliances from the Department of Energy. Jung said HUD should also employ regional climate experts who are versed in local climate policies and are focused on ensuring housing in all parts of the country are meeting ambitious goals.

“There needs to be people whose entire job it is to think about climate all day,” she said.

Department of Justice

Judicial action can be a major arena to push forth climate action, as the DOJ has the power to bring its hammer down on polluting companies and entities. In recent years, lawyers have worked with activists and municipalities to file a growing number of lawsuits against oil companies and their allies in government for their contributions to the climate crisis. If they prevail, these cases could force these fossil fuel giants to change their behavior and pay retributions for the environmental and public health damages they’ve caused.

Reports have found that under Trump, the DOJ has worked with the polluting parties to fight off these cases, preparing amicus briefs in their favor. But Biden has pledged to order his DOJ to “strategically support ongoing plaintiff-driven climate litigation against polluters.” The agency couldn’t force courts to rule in favor of the plaintiffs of these cases, but its support could seriously tip the scales in their favor.

“If the DOJ were siding with people over polluters moving forward, I think it would be an entirely different ballgame,” Richard Wiles, executive director of Climate Integrity, said.

The first step would be for new DOJ officials to stop helping oil companies fend off lawsuits. But the agency could also go further, filing amicus briefs for the plaintiffs instead. The advisory task force Biden formed with Sen. Bernie Sanders has suggested the president-elect form an environmental and climate justice division within the DOJ, and the president-elect’s climate plan includes a promise to do so. Whether or not this happens will depend in large part on who Biden chooses to work in the DOJ.

“One of the first and most important things Biden can do is appoint an Attorney General and other Department of Justice officials who are committed to holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for deceiving the public about their role in causing the climate crisis,” Wiles said.

If he appointed someone brave enough, Biden’s DOJ could not only support others’ lawsuits, but could do investigations of its own. That includes following the template laid out by attorneys general in Massachusetts, New York, and elsewhere to probe oil companies and executives that lied to the public about climate change. If the DOJ turned up foul play, the agency could levy those investigations to force bad actors to clean up their act. It’s not just fossil fuel companies who the DOJ could hold accountable for pollution, either.

“Biden’s DOJ could enhance enforcement efforts in the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division to increase enforcement under the Clean Air Act,” Jillian Blanchard, climate change director at Lawyers for Good Government, said in an email. Under the Trump administration’s so-called Clean Energy Rule, which gutted the U.S. Clean Power Plan, the agency’s ability to do this is limited, but the replacement rule is being challenged in court.

“The Biden Administration could ask for a stay of this litigation while it revokes Trump’s rule and re-issues an updated version of Obama’s Clean Power Plan,” Blanchard said. Then, the DOJ could revamp the Clean Power Plan and under it, ramp up efforts to enforce regulations and take polluters to court. That’s fallen to a 30-year low under Trump, and in his climate plan, Biden has said he will “direct his EPA and Justice Department to pursue these cases to the fullest extent permitted by law and, when needed, seek additional legislation as needed to hold corporate executives personally accountable—including jail time where merited.”

Department of Labor

Extreme heat and weather disasters pose safety risks to workers, especially those whose labor takes place outdoors. They also put workers under financial stress. A recent report, for instance, found that the U.S. lost a total of 2 billion potential hours of labor due to extreme heat last year, since high temperatures can make it dangerous to go outside.

“As the world warms, many occupations will become more hazardous and dangerous, and therefore will need the Department of Labor more than ever,” Joe Uehlein, founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said.

Labor rights are at the center of the transition away from fossil fuels. The covid-19 pandemic has made this clearer than ever, since oil companies, amid crashing fuel demand, have been cutting costs by laying off workers in droves while ensuring their shareholders’ pockets stay lined. Currently, the DOL has employment and training programs for dislocated workers, but if the agency were to have climate-focused staff on their team, it could build out entire programs specifically for those laid off from dirty energy industries. The agency could also create employment programs within those industries’ replacements.

“They could partner with employers from the clean industries of tomorrow for the transition away from our destructive economy, making sure that communities who are underrepresented in our workforce and especially in our fossil fuel economy, like people from frontline communities who have seen the worst impacts of it… get a fair chance to be to be trained for the jobs of tomorrow,” Basav Sen, climate justice project director at the Institute for Policy Studies, said.

It’s important that jobs in the clean energy economy are fairly paid and unionized to ensure that workers are protected. No worker should suffer worse conditions as a result of the transition to clean power. But unfortunately, the DOL’s options for improving workers’ rights to organize are limited without support from outside the agency. All of labor law needs an overhaul.

“The process by which unions are organized, according to U.S. labor law, is stacked in favor of employers. To promote workers rights in general, including those in fossil fuel industries, the process for organizing unions must be made easier and must not create many opportunities for employers to intervene and coerce and intimidate workers into not working in a union,” Sen said. Passing the PRO Act through the Senate would be a step in the right direction.

That said, even without Congressional backing, the agency could take steps to hold all employers accountable for violations of existing labor law. That includes wage and hour violations, wherein employers often try to shortchange on the number of hours actually worked. It also includes misclassification, where companies get out of giving workers benefits by saying they’re not employees—a violation upon which the entire business models of gig work companies is based.

“There will be a lot of people newly employed by the renewable sector,” Sen said. “Getting more aggressive about these kinds of violations would ensure that these jobs are good jobs.”

That would be a win for climate justice, and could also ease fossil fuel workers’ real concerns about the clean energy transition.

Department of State

The Trump administration has been a disaster for the U.S. image abroad. To rehabilitate it, Biden’s team will have a lot of work to do. And there may be no better avenue to doing so than the climate crisis, which doesn’t respect borders and will require cooperation on a global scale to solve. After decades of inaction, the urgency to get to work on reducing carbon pollution has never been higher.

“Climate is at the top of the international agenda,” Nat Keohane, a senior vice president at Environmental Defense Fund who co-authored a document for Climate 21 on the State Department, said. “You think about a Venn diagram of what’s important to our allies and what can be done right away, climate is at the center of that Venn diagram. The Iran nuclear deal is important, but you can’t act on it right away. [Rejoining] WHO is easy to act on, but the US membership in the WHO is not like the thing that’s keeping foreign leaders up at night.”

It starts on day one and re-entering the Paris Agreement, something Biden has pledged to do. But that’s akin to stretching for the marathon ahead. As part of rejoining, the Biden administration will have to submit a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), a non-binding commitment to reduce emissions and address climate change. The one submitted under Obama called for the U.S. to reduce emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 emissions by 2025. The U.S. was unlikely to meet that even before Trump pulled out of the agreement, but the urgency to address climate change has only grown.

Now, the world will eagerly wait to see what Biden puts forward and how much more ambitious it will be than the one Obama put forward. The timeline to do so will be tight with a major international climate conference coming up in November. Given that Biden has promised to decarbonize electricity by 2035. Keohane said a credible NDC would likely be around a promise to reduce all U.S. emissions 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.

The State Department can’t just rely on showing up to climate talks once a year, though. It has to incorporate a mix of multilateral and bilateral conversations and commitments around climate so the world is working together to achieve emissions reductions. That includes bringing together high emitters such as China, India, the EU, and oil-producing states in the Middle East and coming up with a mutually agreed upon framework to wind down fossil fuel production. Aid can also be used to foster no-carbon development and help countries adapt to climate change, whether it’s rising seas, more intense droughts, or wildfires.

Climate 21 also includes a recommendation for a climate envoy who could ensure the State Department efforts are coordinated both within the agency and other departments, an idea echoed by others who have worked for the agency but wished to remain anonymous. The U.S. has more to offer than just money; it has nearly unmatched expertise in government despite Trump’s attempt to hollow it out. The Department of Energy’s national labs, for example, are working on revolutionary clean energy technologies. The Department of Agriculture has knowledge for dryland farming. NASA has satellites that can monitor pollution. The State Department can leverage that expertise to negotiate deals, offering assistance to nations that don’t have the voluminous technical capacity of the U.S. And the foreign service can include more climate experts—an idea put forward by Evergreen Action in a memo—to make sure the baton is passed smoothly.

“All that can be harnessed, the State Department can build that out,” Keohane said. “I think of the State Department like the external face, and that they need to be developing these good relationships with the technical experts.”

Department of the Interior

A fifth of the U.S. is under the purview of DOI. That’s a lot of land to create a climate plan for. Oh, and there’s also 1.7 billion acres of ocean the agency oversees.

The DOI’s climate mission starts with what’s under the ground; 42% of coal, 24% of crude oil, and 13% of methane gas were extracted on public lands in 2017. The agency leases millions of acres to fossil fuel companies, and Trump tried to turbocharge that by opening vast swaths of the ocean and the far reaches of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploitation. Biden has promised to ban offshore and Arctic drilling. He’ll have a tail wind on the latter as all major U.S. banks have said they’ll no longer fund Arctic fossil fuel exploration.

But work will have to go well beyond that, creating a plan to wind down fossil fuel activity on all federal land while simultaneously ramping up renewables, particularly offshore wind. Ending leasing will have a relatively small impact since there’s already so much coal, oil, and gas being dug up on public lands on current leases. To wind down production will require going further.

“It’s no longer enough to simply stop fossil fuel expansion—it’s now crucial that leaders committed to climate success begin actively winding down some existing extraction with a just transition,” Collin Rees, a campaigner with Oil Change U.S., said in a text. “Interior can do that in a number of ways without any new authority from Congress—by terminating fossil fuel leases which were issued invalidly, ending BLM’s practice of issuing lease suspensions, increasing and enforcing self-bonding requirements for oil and gas wells and coal mines, instituting health and safety buffer zones banning extraction in certain areas, reversing Trump’s attempts to shrink and repeal national monument designations, and more.”

There’s also the tall order of capping the estimated 750,000 orphaned wells, an unknown number of which are on public lands, spewing pollution. But that effort dovetails well with fossil fuel workers’ skills and could be a huge job creator while simultaneously helping wind down the industry without hurting workers.

Ramping up wind is already happening under Trump, with a record auction held in 2018. DOI could take money in this funding year’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management budget and transfer it from offshore oil to offshore wind projects as a short-term move. Longer-term, it could speed up permitting for offshore wind and set targets for power generation.

Public lands also offer ample opportunities to capture and store carbon through natural sinks like forests and grasslands found in national parks, wildlife refuges, and other locations. At the same time, the agency has work to do along with the USDA to make sure the carbon stored on public lands doesn’t go up in smoke. Wildfires have burned over the West with increasing intensity and severity.

The agency also includes Fish and Wildlife Services, which oversees the Endangered Species Act. Trump’s DOI watered that down in a way that makes it harder to protect species threatened by climate change. Addressing the loopholes he created is vital to protecting wildlife. The department also needs to work with DHS to remediate the border wall, which was built in a manner destructive to national parks and endangered species that live in the fragile borderlands.

Climate justice is also a huge area where DOI can make inroads. Under Trump, the agency shrunk Bears Ears National Monument against the wishes of local tribes. It could reverse course under Biden. The Bureau of Indian Affairs also sits within the agency and is tasked with improving economic opportunities for tribes. It could fulfill that mission by bringing opportunities to be part of the clean energy economy to reservations around the U.S. The Navajo Nation, for example, just saw the Navajo Generating Station shutter. While that reduced pollution, it also left a $40 million hole in the budget. BIA could support developing the renewable energy sector given the transmission infrastructure already in place and support other tribes so they could be part of the transition. There’s also the matter of pipelines that faced widespread Indigenous opposition from Dakota Access to Keystone XL to Line 3, and the need to engage tribes more fully in the consultation process and receive consent (or listen to the opposition).

Uplifting tribes goes beyond the government swooping in, though. Rather it requires respecting Indigenous groups as peers, including treaty rights, and reconciling a history of displacement and genocide. Ann Marie Chischilly, the executive director of Northern Arizona University’s Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, pointed to a document that tribal climate experts put together earlier this year in support of the House’s climate plan as a good starting point for the Biden administration as well.

“Just the recognition and the respect would be huge—and listening to us,” she said.

Department of the Treasury

The Treasury advises the president on economic matters. Given that climate change is a massive threat to the economy, the Treasury has tons of untapped potential to influence climate policy—and specifically, to put an end to fossil fuel financing.

“Banks, asset managers, etc., they’re putting money continually into oil and gas,” Brett Fleishman, associate director of fossil finance campaigns at environmental advocacy organization, said. “Financial regulators have the ability to dig us out of this hole.”

That ability is due in large part to the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, commonly known as Dodd Frank. The legislation was crafted after the 2008 financial crisis to give regulators more power to shield the economic system from crashes. Banks caused that crisis with predatory mortgages, but the climate crisis should qualify, too.

“The argument, overall, is that climate is a risk to the financial system and that the Treasury should do everything it can to help and push banks and companies to mitigate those risks that they themselves are undertaking,” Alexis Goldstein, senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform, said.

Climate change is a threat to financial stability in more ways than one. It has the potential to disrupt every aspect of American life.

“There’s the physical planetary risk to the economy from things like when there is flooding or wildfires or drought somewhere, since those kinds of climate events threaten the financial assets that these companies hold,” Graham Steele, director of the Corporations and Society Initiative at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, said. “And then there’s public policy risk, because when policymakers decide they’re not going to rely so much on fossil fuels in the economy anymore, then loans to oil and gas companies and assets and investments in them will suddenly become less profitable.”

Dodd Frank created the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), a group chaired by the Department of Treasury’s secretary which includes all federal regulatory agencies. When the body identifies a risk, it can push regulators to more aggressively regulate the companies’ behavior.

“For instance, if FSOC says that because of their investments in fossil fuels and other carbon intensive industries, the country’s largest asset managers pose a risk to financial stability, it can tell the [Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates asset managers] to limit those investments,” Steele said.

If that approach doesn’t work, FSOC can then bring the Federal Reserve into the picture.

“In that scenario, if the SEC says they disagree and they decide not to regulate asset managers more, then under the leadership of the Treasury, FSOC can vote to take authority for regulating those asset managers away from the SEC and give it to the Federal Reserve. They can then say to the Fed, okay, now you have to do the stuff that we were telling the SEC to do,” Steele said.

There’s an even more aggressive path that the Treasury could take. At the end of Dodd Frank, a provision gives FSOC the ability to take any other actions it deems necessary to address the risks that companies pose. That could be interpreted to allow the body to create dollar caps on the investments that companies can make in polluting industries in order to limit global warming or measure and limit the amount of emissions companies are responsible for. It could even be used to ban investments in fossil fuels, if regulators are bold enough.

The Treasury also plays a key role in international diplomacy and should prioritize mitigating climate risk there, too. When negotiating with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, for instance, its officials should advocate for and participate in measures to draw down emissions. It can also increase the ambition of the country’s financial commitments to fighting climate change.

“At the upcoming UN COP [international climate talks] in Glasgow next year, the world will be looking to see how the U.S. rejoins the global community in tackling the climate crisis, and one of the key contributions it can make is by tackling one of the major sources of climate destruction in our country: Wall Street,” Ben Cushing, senior campaign representative at the Sierra Club, said. If the Treasury takes steps to reign in polluting institutions, it will show the world that the U.S. is serious about taking on the crisis, and could encourage other countries to do business—and follow suit.

Department of Transportation

The single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. is transportation. So while agencies like EPA or the Department of Energy might get the brightest spotlights for how they can drive emissions cuts, DOT is central to the U.S. achieving zero emissions.

DOT and EPA actually have a role to play together in addressing vehicle emissions standards, something the Trump administration rolled back to allow for more pollution. Under Biden, they could change course and implement more stringent standards. Ultimately, an efficient internal combustion engine is still a source of pollution, though, and long-term, the DOT has to help transition to electric vehicles to really make a dent in transportation pollution.

It could do so by investing in charging infrastructure to stimulate electric vehicle demand. States and even utilities are already looking at plans to build out charging infrastructure on both coasts, efforts DOT could help foster. The department could also offer a voucher program for trading in a gas-powered vehicle for an electric one, something Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has proposed.

The agency also funds a miles and miles of roadway maintenance and construction. That’s where things get sticky. On the one hand, it makes sense for the agency to spend money on repairs and ensuring they’re done to handle this century’s climate extremes of more heavy downpours, intense heat, and sea level rise, to name a few impacts. But its funding for new roads and roadway expansion is where things can go sideways. Building new roads is a carbon pollution time bomb waiting to happen as long as the majority of vehicles are gas-powered, to say nothing of the ecological impacts and how they can negatively affect communities they cut through.

“Right now, DOT is largely a car and truck agency,” Costa Samaras, the director of the Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Adaptation at Carnegie Mellon, said in an email. “We need it to be a clean mobility agency, and it can be. We need to revise the way DOT’s capital spending is given to states, the so-called 80-20 rule, where 80% is spent on highways and 20% is spent on transit.”

Expanding access to high-quality public transportation is where DOT could make major inroads to cutting carbon emissions. It’s also where money is urgently needed; just this week, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced plans to severely curtail service after covid-19 sent ridership and revenue plummeting. It’s a trend seen across the country, and the DOT could help fill some of that gap while also contributing to a low carbon future for cities.

That might be less sexy than shovel-ready projects like highway expansion where the Biden administration can toss up a big sign saying it’s being built with coronavirus recovery funds. Emily Grubert, an engineer at Georgia Tech, said that “basically just continues to put money into a system that is really, really hard to move away from when you’re so invested in just this massive capital allocation to the roadway system.”

She also advocated for letting cities and towns tinker and find what low- and no-carbon transit works best for them, whether its light rail, bike lanes, e-bike and scooter programs, or better walking infrastructure. The agency could also connect with HUD to figure out how transit and increasing housing density can work hand-in-hand to reduce emissions and improve quality of life.

Any projects that DOT does fund to reduce emissions also need to address injustice. Highways and other transportation infrastructure have generally been rammed through communities of color that not only fail to reap the benefits, but are actively harmed by air and noise pollution. All that asphalt also causes heat to build up, further worsens quality of life and puts people at-risk of heat-related illnesses. That can’t happen again. Similarly, Grubert said the shift to electric vehicles can’t create new injustices by forcing people working at gas stations to lose their jobs without a fallback or transition period.

“We can’t repeat the injustices of the past when we reinvest in infrastructure,” Samaras said.

Department of Veteran Affairs

The VA doesn’t have nearly as long a climate to-do list as other agencies, but it isn’t exempt either. The biggest issue is improving its hospitals and other infrastructure’s resilience to climate change. That’s particularly pressing given the impact of increasingly extreme weather and the risks that poses to any of the 20 million patients that rely on the VA. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Brian Schatz, both on the Senate Armed Services Committee, made a request last year for the agency to update its adaptation plans.

The agency’s hospitals could also find ways to cut down on emissions as well. Common inhaled general anesthetics, for instance, also release greenhouse gases that are thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Cutting down on them and switching to local anesthesia could yield substantial climate benefits from an unexpected source of emissions.

Environmental Protection Agency

Not to diminish the other agencies here, but the EPA is the beating heart of climate policy. Thirty-nine EPA rules have been or are in the process of being rolled back. Another seven were rolled back, only to be reinstated after legal challenges. We’re talking everything from power plants to waterways to cars to pipelines to toilets.

It goes without saying Biden will likely try to reverse a number of the rollbacks and strengthen rules and regulations. As we’ve seen with the Trump years, a tide of lawsuits will likely come in in response, though from conservative challengers. That behooves the Biden administration to lean into actually applying science in rule-making, something that was decidedly lacking under Trump. Which, hey, that’ll happen when you first appoint a zealot grifter as agency administrator and then replace him after he resigns in shame with a coal lobbyist.

The most important rule the EPA can make is all of them, but one of most profound things it could work on in the Biden era is updating the social cost of carbon. That’s a metric the agency uses to determine the damage that would result from a ton of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere, and it’s crucial to how stringent the EPA makes rules governing carbon pollution. The Trump administration put the social cost of a ton of carbon from $1 to $7, which is climate denial at its finest. Obama’s EPA put it at $45. Scientists put it much higher, including a July 2020 Nature Climate Change study that put it between $100 and $200 per ton. Long story short: The EPA has a lot of work to do on defining it properly, and getting it right will be a huge determinant for how it sets climate rules.

Speaking of, that also means rebuilding morale for career staff who spent the past four years either under siege or sidelined. Doing so could be as simple as signaling trust in their judgment and putting them to work on projects that will meaningfully reduce pollution and help public health. Cleaning house in the industry-stocked advisory boards put in place under the Trump administration could also reinvigorate agency staff. Among the greatest hits are a Trump era advisory board falsely calling air pollution and public health research “not trustworthy.” Undoing former Administrator Scott Pruitt’s rule to sideline real outside experts would be a huge boon.

For all the hackery done at the EPA over the Trump years, there’s one key lesson to takeaway for Biden. To quote Vox’s Dave Roberts: “blitz. Do everything at once.” Deliberate rule-making is no reason not to go fast and hard, especially given the scope of the climate crisis. It’s not about choosing whether to do car or power plant emissions rules first. There are any number of ways a Biden EPA can wield tools like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other statutes to target emissions and pollution from all facets of industry. It must use them all at once.

EPA, along with the Departments of Interior, Energy, and Agriculture could also fire up a cross-agency version of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known by its popular acronym, DARPA. The program aims at developing emerging technologies, including such hits as the internet. ARPA-E already exists at DOE for moonshot energy technology. A new ARPA, ARPA-C, could target all the non-energy ways to cut emissions. The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force highlighted a few potential areas for breakthroughs in its final document, including decarbonizing industrial heat and construction, agriculture, and even improving agricultural practices to sequester carbon.

But the EPA cannot act without considering the impacts of rulemaking on those exposed to pollution. That means hooking up with states, tribes, fenceline, and even fossil fuel workers to hear about their experiences. It also means building up expertise in the agency’s Environmental Justice Office and actually enforcing fines for pollution, both which Trump weakened. Technocratic solutions to draw down emissions alone would address the climate part of the climate crisis, but not the crisis underlying it.

“There are a lot of more traditional pollutant issues that if EPA were more aggressive on, would provide a ton of remediation jobs that are in the places where a lot of people would be losing their work because they’re shutting down coal mines or shutting down power plants,” Emily Grubert, an engineer at Georgia Tech, said.

The Federal Reserve

The Federal Reserve is the country’s central banking system, and it has “not only the responsibility but the tools to turn climate action into reality,” Carla Skandier, co-manager of the climate and energy program of the Next System Project, said.

Under Dodd Frank, the Fed—like the Treasury—is meant to limit systemic risks to financial stability. Last month, the agency took steps to acknowledge that climate change is one of those threats. In its latest biannual report, officials listed the climate crisis as a stability risk for the first time, and also applied to join a group of central banks focused on meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, an indication it’s preparing for Biden to reenter the agreement. But there are other, more concrete steps it could take to help the nation take on the crisis.

One of the Fed’s most powerful tools is its ability to create money. Through a policy known as quantitative easing, it can buy up government bonds and other financial assets to put more money into the economy and thereby boost economic activity. The agency launched the program amid the 2008 financial crash to pump money into the banks that caused the economic disaster in the first place. But it could use it now toward a better end—boosting the green economy.

“We believe the Fed could do this due to the powers it was given by Dodd Frank,” Mark Paul, who co-authored a report with Skandier on the proposal, said.

With its additional funds, the Federal Reserve could also invest on the order of $1 trillion dollars a year in renewable energy the nation needs. Doing so would also create jobs to build and maintain all that new infrastructure. The agency could also use these additional funds to buy up the nation’s fossil fuel companies, bringing them under national control in order to phase them out of existence. Skandier said that this moment, when oil prices and energy companies’ valuations are in the gutter, is the right time to do so. She noted that the government has already spent billions of dollars on bailing out fossil fuel companies using covid-19 stimulus money, but if it chose to, it could spend to help frontline communities, fossil fuel workers, and the planet instead.

“This is not only necessary from a social, labor, and environmental perspectives, but a must if the Fed wants to have a chance to fulfill its financial stability mandate moving forward,” she said.

Office of Management and Budget

OMB is the largest office under the president’s domain. It also may be the most underrated in terms of its importance for climate policy, because it sets the budget for every other part of the executive branch.

“If we could win on one agency besides the Department of Energy and the EPA, if we could have one more agency be led by a climate champion, you might want it to be OMB,” Max Moran, research assistant at the Center for Economic Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, said.

While Congress controls the federal government’s purse, OMB can have massive influence over spending because it can insert itself into the process of determining what receives funding.

“George W. Bush’s OMB did this by essentially telling agencies that if they wanted to spend their discretionary funds on new business regulations, they had to first run it past OMB,” Moran said.

Biden could use the same power, but instead of doing so to bottleneck regulatory policy, he could force agencies to justify their funding requests in climate terms, ensuring each department is prioritizing reducing greenhouse gas emissions or at least not adding to carbon pollution. The agency could also institute an equity screen and ensuring that money is flowing to disadvantaged communities, a key priority identified in a new Evergreen Action brief. Biden has committed to targeting 40% of his clean energy plan funds to oft-neglected communities, and OMB offers a prime way to bake that into the entire federal government.

“If every other part of the executive branch has to go through a climate warrior in order to get their money, they are all going to start caring a lot more about climate issues,” Moran said.


Of all the climate-focused agencies under Trump, NASA arguably fared the best. After years of climate denial as a member of Congress, Jim Bridenstine staged a full turn around on the issue once he became NASA administrator. As a result, scientists have largely continued their climate work without interference.

Under Biden, NASA should redouble its climate efforts, though. Those include Earth-observing satellites, airborne missions, and climate modeling. Its satellites monitor everything from sea levels to pollution to gravity shifts due to melting ice (seriously, science is amazing). Continuing those observations and ensuring funding is available to keep data flowing is vital to ensuring a more granular understanding of what’s happening to the planet. That in turn can help feed NASA’s modeling program, which can in turn undergird decisions made across the government about how to respond to climate change.

Small Business Administration

Small businesses are on the frontlines of the climate crisis and covid-19. The Paycheck Protection Program was wildly popular as a way to keep businesses afloat during the pandemic. Nevertheless, small businesses are still hurting and will likely need more aid in the coming months.

While keeping people employed should be a top priority above all else, the SBA could propose and administer something along the lines of the PPP with the climate crisis in mind. One avenue could be a Sustainable Finance Fund, an idea put forth by Addisu Lashitew, a fellow at the Brooking Institute, that could help small businesses fund energy efficiency improvements or clean energy.

The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force also includes a call for “expanding federal tools for investment in marginalized communities and broadening access to capital investment and markets for women- and minority-owned small businesses.” The SBA could play a central role in that through grants and loans, ensuring that communities traditionally neglected are at the forefront of the clean energy economy.

The task for Biden to be a climate president begins on Day 1, flows through every agency, Cabinet-level or otherwise, and will require dedication to ensure the solutions he and his appointees craft serve all Americans. If anything is clear by the end of this, it’s that the Biden administration has a tall task ahead. But it’s one where failure is quite literally not an option.


Opinion: 15 Lessons from 30 Years of Voluntary Carbon Markets

This article has been extracted from a climate change micro-site dedicated to Carbon Offsets Round 2. It is part of an ongoing effort to share opinions from thought leaders on a diverse range of issues. The views are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of Forest Trends or Ecosystem Marketplace.  

15 December 2020 | In 1988 Applied Energy Services, working with the World Resources Institute, carried out the first carbon offset project via a CARE agroforestry project in Guatemala. I wrote the carbon quantification methodology for that project (based on conserving nearby forest).

While the idea of offsets has proved very popular in industry and other circles, the experience with carbon markets has been mixed at best. In fact, by 2015 is was less and less clear what the role of carbon offsets would and should be in mitigating climate change.

Then everything changed. Suddenly companies started announcing voluntary “net zero” commitments reminiscent of the first corporate emissions reduction commitments of the 1990s. Because “net zero” commitments almost inherently require carbon offsets, suddenly Carbon Offsets Round 2 was underway. Round 2 was given a huge boost with the establishment of the Task Force to Scale Voluntary Carbon Markets (TSVCM), based on the suggestion by UN Envoy on Climate Change Mark Carney that voluntary markets will have to expand by a factor of almost 200 to help tackle climate change! The TSVCM then put out a consultation document focused on how to make that happen.

That consultation document has almost NO discussion of what we’ve learned from the last 30 years of voluntary carbon offset markets, which you’d think would be relevant to the idea of dramatically expanding those markets. So I’ve taken a very quick stab at identifying what some of those lessons are:

  1. It is impossible to maximize for the two primary goals of offsets: “cost containment” and “climate benefit.” There is a fundamental conflict between the two objectives, and cost containment almost always wins.
  2. Without constant attention to “willful blindness” and “capture of the system by stakeholders,” you quickly end up selling the equivalent of the emperor’s (invisible) clothing.
  3. Policy makers have generally failed to recognize that the truly key decisions relating to carbon offsets are policy decisions, not technical decisions that can be delegated to technocrats or stakeholders.
  4. The primary threat to the environmental integrity of carbon markets has been the definition, interpretation, and implementation of the “additionality” criterion. Not fraud and double-counting as is now being suggested because market participants would rather focus on the quantification and tracking of offsets rather than their origination.
  5. “Additional” emissions reductions or carbon sequestration have to be traceable back to the workings of and incentives created by the carbon market they are being sold into. That’s what makes them additional. No additionality, no climate change benefit.
  6. Carbon offset additionality testing is simply an example of hypothesis testing, which requires the balancing the number of “false positives” and “false negatives,” given that they are inversely correlated. But there is almost no discussion of this basic fact.
  7. There is almost never the opportunity to know with certainty whether a particular ton of reduced emissions or carbon sequestration is additional. It’s always a judgment call.
  8. It is not enough to characterize “additional” projects as projects that “wouldn’t have happened anyway,” or that “weren’t business as usual.” These ideas are so vague that they’re easily gamed.
  9. In the face of policy and market uncertainties, offset developers are motivated to get the lowest-risk and lowest-cost reductions and sequestration accepted into offsets markets. Those are by definition the least additional.
  10. The verification process associated with carbon offsets does not extend to verifying their additionality. Additionality testing involves building an a priori counter-factual case that verifiers accept; it can rarely if ever be empirically tested for later on.
  11. Additionality fatigue after 30 years of voluntary carbon offsets is similar to COVID-19 lockdown fatigue. Understandable, but in no way invalidating the need to tackle the underlying problem.
  12. The handling of offset permanence can dramatically change the economics of carbon offsets from some sectors, and even eliminate them as a source of offsets.
  13. Like additionality, leakage can usually not be empirically measured when evaluating carbon offsets, and often requires similar policy determinations.
  14. A key problem for voluntary offset markets has been that any offset approved by any of the offset standards organizations can claim to be as good as any other offset. There has been no way for offsets of demonstrably higher quality to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.
  15. An alternative is needed to the “least common denominator” approach to approving carbon offsets. A “quality score” for offsets would provide consumers with much more information, and create an incentive for better and self-reinforcing market performance.

I’m not suggesting these are the ONLY lessons that should be taken into account if Carbon Offsets Round 2 is going to proceed as apparently planned, but they do seem rather relevant to that goal.



UN Secretary General: Without the US in the Paris Agreement, Humanity Faces Climate ‘Suicide’

2 December 2020 | “The way we are moving is a suicide,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said in an interview on Monday, and humanity’s survival will be “impossible” without the United States rejoining the Paris Agreement and achieving “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, as the incoming Biden administration has pledged.

The Secretary General said that “of course” he had been in touch with president-elect Biden and looked forward to welcoming the US into a “global coalition for net zero by 2050” that the UN has organized.  The US is the world’s largest cumulative  source of heat trapping emissions and its biggest military and economic power, Guterres noted, so “there is no way we can solve the [climate] problem … without strong American leadership.”

In an extraordinary  if largely unheralded diplomatic achievement, most of the world’s leading emitters have already joined the UN’s “net zero by 2050” coalition, including the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, and China (which is the world’s largest source of annual emissions and has committed to achieving carbon neutrality “before 2060”).  India, meanwhile, the world’s third largest annual emitter,  is the only Group of 20 country on track to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, despite needing to lift many of its people out of poverty, an achievement Guterres called “remarkable.”  Along with fellow petrostate Russia, the US has been the only major holdout, after Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement soon after becoming president four years ago.

The new pledges could bring the Paris Agreement’s goals “within reach,” provided that the pledges are fulfilled, concluded an analysis by the independent research group Climate Action Tracker.  If so, temperature rise could be limited to 2.1 C, the group said—higher than the Agreement’s target of 1.5 to 2 C, but a major improvement from the 3 to 5 C future that business as usual would deliver.

“The targets set at Paris were always meant to be increased over time,” Guterres said.  “[Now,] we need to align those commitments with a 1.5 C future, and then you must implement.”

Reiterating scientists’ warning that humanity faces “a climate emergency,” the Secretary General said that achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 is imperative to avoiding “irreversible” impacts that would be “absolutely devastating for the world economy and for human life.”  He said rich countries must honor their obligation under the Paris Agreement to provide $100 billion a year to help developing countries limit their own climate pollution and adapt to the heat waves, storms, and sea level rise already underway.

The trillions of dollars now being invested to revive pandemic-battered economies also must be spent in a “green” way, Guterres argued, or today’s younger generations will inherit “a wrecked planet.”  And he predicted that the oil and gas industry, in its present form, will die out before the end of this century as economies shift to renewable energy sources.

The Secretary General’s interview, conducted by CBS News, The Times of India, and El Pais on behalf of the journalistic consortium Covering Climate Now, is part of a 10-day push by the UN to reinvigorate the Paris Agreement before a follow-up conference next year.  That conference, known as the 26th Conference of the Parties, or COP 26, was supposed to take place this week but was postponed due to the pandemic.  On December 12, 2020, Guterres will mark the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement by convening a global climate summit with Boris Johnson, who as prime minister of the UK is the official host of COP 26, which occurs in Glasgow, Scotland, next November.

A total of 110 countries have joined the “net zero by 2050” coalition, the Secretary General said, a development he attributed to growing recognition of the increasingly frequent and destructive extreme weather events climate change is unleashing around the world and the “tremendous pressure” governments have faced from civil society, including millions of young people protesting in virtually every country as well as more and more of the private sector.

“Governments, until now, thought to a certain extent that they could do whatever they wanted,” Guterres said.  “But now … we see the youth mobilizing in fantastic ways all over the world.”  And with solar and other renewable energy sources now cheaper than carbon-based equivalents, investors are realizing that “the sooner that they move … to portfolios linked to the new green and digital economy, the best it will be for their own assets and their own clients.”

For a global economy that still relies on oil, gas, and coal for most of its energy and much of its food production, moving to “net zero” by 2050 nevertheless represents a tectonic shift—all the more so because scientists calculate that emissions must fall roughly by half over the next 10 years to hit the 2050 target.  Achieving those goals will require fundamental shifts in both public and private policy, including building no new coal plants and phasing out existing ones, Guterres said.  Governments must also reform tax and subsidy practices.

There should be “no more subsidies for fossil fuels,” the Secretary General said.  “It doesn’t make any sense that taxpayers’ money is spent destroying the planet.  At the same time, we should shift taxation from income to carbon, from taxpayers to polluters.  I’m not asking governments to increase taxes.  I’m asking governments to reduce the taxes on payrolls or on companies that commit to invest in green energy and put that level of taxation on carbon pollution.”

Governments must also ensure a “just transition” for the people and communities affected by the phase-out of fossil fuels, with workers getting unemployment payments and retraining for jobs in the new green economy.  “When I was in government [as the prime minister of Portugal], we had to close all the coal mines,” he recalled.  “We did everything we could to make sure that those who were working in those mines would have their futures guaranteed.”

The “cycle of oil as the key engine of the world economy is finished,” Guterres said.  By the end of the 21st century, petroleum might still be used “as raw materials for different products… but the role of fossil fuels as [an energy source] will be minimal.”  As for fossil fuel companies’ stated ambitions to continue producing more oil, gas and coal, Guterres said that throughout history various economic sectors have risen and fallen and that the digital sector has now displaced the fossil fuel sector as the center of the global economy.  “I’m totally convinced that a lot of the oil and gas that is today in the soil,” he said, “will remain in the soil.”